Taleban's winter offensive 'out of character'

ISLAMABAD • The Afghan Taleban has launched an unprecedented winter surge that points to a desire for an upper hand in peace talks, analysts say, while some suggest rogue Pakistani elements may be bolstering the effort to derail overtures by Islamabad to New Delhi.

Taleban fighting normally quietens down in winter months, with the insurgents resting ahead of an annual spring offensive. But this year has seen a series of fierce attacks - many focused on Kabul in recent weeks, including three in the capital since Friday.

Some say the ongoing fighting is a bid by Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour to consolidate his position ahead of four-way talks between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China slated for next week, a precursor to a revived peace dialogue between Kabul and the insurgents.

Mr Ahmed Rashid, a leading expert on the Afghan Taleban, said Mansour was tightening his grip on power through the high-profile attacks, after a shoot-out between rival insurgent commanders in Pakistan last month left him wounded. "We've never had such a winter offensive before from the Taleban. It is going to roll into a continuous spring-summer offensive," he told Agence France-Presse.

"Mansour is consolidating his position. If he's seen as a military success, they (the militants) will remain loyal to him. Military success also de-legitimises the anti-Mansour faction that is emerging," he said, referring to the formation of a splinter group challenging his rule.

"The insurgents are trying to show to the world that they have a presence in the country and get more concessions in the peace talks," said Mr Dawlat Waziri, a Defence Ministry spokesman.

But Pakistan - seen as one of the few countries with influence over the insurgents - is also playing a role, regional analysts said. "The Taleban does not have the authority to decide on peace talks; they are controlled by others," said Mr Zalmay Wardak, a Kabul-based military analyst, referring to Pakistan.

In recent years, Pakistan has officially re-oriented its Afghan policy, disavowing the use of surrogate fighters, such as the Taleban, to achieve its foreign policy goals in Afghanistan, where it is seen as fighting a proxy war with India.

Islamabad and New Delhi recently agreed to relaunch peace talks and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan last month, the first by an Indian premier in 11 years, immediately after his first tour of Kabul.

But two attacks on Indian interests - a 25-hour siege on India's mission in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif that ended on Monday, and a bloody weekend assault on an airbase in India - could signal the desire of elements within the powerful Pakistani military to scupper peace efforts between the two countries, one analyst suggested.

"The attack in India and the surge in attacks in Afghanistan could be seen as a joint strategy," said Mr Khadim Hussain, a political analyst based in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'Taleban's winter offensive 'out of character''. Print Edition | Subscribe