Cold war comes to Afghanistan

King is a Times staff writer.

In recent years, the first snow falling on the jagged mountain peaks of Afghanistan has ushered in a seasonal slowdown in fighting between insurgents and the Western forces that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

This winter looks to be different. Snow and icy terrain aside, both sides have made it clear that they plan to keep fighting, each contending that the harsh conditions favor them more than their enemy.

“We’ll be pursuing them, and pursuing them aggressively, whatever the conditions, and they know this,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, chief spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, a vow amplified by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, in a speech in Washington on Tuesday.

The militants say they are more than ready. In restive Kandahar province, a mid-level Taliban field commander noted that winter weather had little effect on their weapons of choice: suicide attackers and roadside bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices.


“We have all the IEDs we need at the ready, stored in places they cannot find them,” the commander said by phone from an undisclosed location. “And we have so, so many martyrs-in-waiting” -- suicide bombers, whose attacks are felt somewhere in Afghanistan almost daily.

As the temperature drops, both sides are factoring winter conditions into their tactical thinking. Western strategists say snow and extreme cold make it far more difficult for Taliban fighters to use infiltration routes through high mountain passes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The flow of insurgents from Pakistan’s tribal areas has been a crucial battlefield factor in recent months, particularly in Afghanistan’s east, where most of the more than 30,000 U.S. troops are deployed.

But if winter storms hamper the militants’ movements, they also erode some of the coalition’s key advantages, particularly airstrikes and aerial surveillance. To an unprecedented degree, the coalition is relying on air power to turn the tables when Western troops are ambushed by militants in the hinterlands.

Without close air support, many little-reported skirmishes could have had very different outcomes, as when a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down last month in Wardak province, not far from Kabul, the capital. Swift airstrikes against militants who were rapidly closing in allowed the crew to escape and the sophisticated craft to be recovered the next day.

Commanders quietly acknowledge that when air power is compromised by bad weather, small patrols and remote outposts are more vulnerable. And in winter, living conditions for troops in small, lightly manned bases in the rugged mountains, already primitive, will become even more difficult.

“There’s always this shadow factor,” said an American paratrooper who has served in several forward bases close to the frontier with Pakistan. “I feel it more in winter than in summer, though -- that sense of being hunkered down, that it’s hard to know what’s happening out there around us.”

Conventional battles occur less often in winter, although such direct engagements have never been a centerpiece of the militants’ strategy. However, insurgents did stage some notably brazen frontal assaults on coalition bases and Afghan government installations last summer.

Longtime observers of the conflict say territorial gains are less important to the militants than fostering an impression of a far wider presence than they actually have. In the course of the summer and fall, high-profile attacks in and around Kabul created an uneasy sense of siege for city dwellers, one that may intensify with winter.

Breaking up insurgents’ explosives networks has been a top priority for coalition forces, and commanders say they can point to important successes in recent months, particularly in cooperation with Afghan troops. Many such operations have taken place in eastern Afghanistan, where much of the bomb-making materiel is ferried in from Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas.

Last week, Afghan commandos backed by coalition forces raided the compound of Badshah Khel, said to be an important IED cell leader in Khowst province, and captured him without firing a shot. Days later, another IED network in eastern Afghanistan was reported broken, with 10 militants killed.

Yet roadside bombs continue to exact a disproportionate toll, killing and maiming far more Western soldiers than do direct clashes with insurgents. Rarely do more than a few days pass without news of roadside bombing fatalities -- and for coalition troops, road patrols are a year-round necessity.

The growing danger of travel outside the capital, coupled with the prospect of rough seasonal conditions on Afghanistan’s poorly maintained roads, is heightening a feeling of separation between Kabul and the surrounding provinces.

“I used to feel I could travel home whenever I wished,” said Rahim Ahmed Khan, whose extended family lives outside Gardez, south of Kabul. “But between the insecurity and the bad weather that is on the way, I think it may be spring before I see them all again. I feel isolated.”

President-elect Barack Obama will face the difficult task of trying to coax North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners to share more of the burden in Afghanistan. In anticipation, the insurgents have been turning their sights on the national forces of countries whose commitment to the war they perceive as wavering.

Early this month, militants killed two Spanish soldiers in western Afghanistan, a relatively peaceful part of the country. It was a little-noticed event in the United States but generated huge headlines in Spain. The newspaper El Pais reported on the hotly revived debate over whether Spain should keep its 700-troop presence here.

In coming months, insurgents are likely to conduct the kind of two-tiered war that was on display last week in Kandahar, when they staged attacks on a scale both publicly grandiose and wrenchingly intimate.

Near the center of the city, the Taliban used a fuel-filled tanker as a truck bomb, flattening part of a government compound and killing six people. President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who works in the compound, escaped uninjured.

On the outskirts of town, assailants on a motorbike splashed acid on a group of girls dressed in their secondary-school uniforms. Two were in hospital with burns to their faces.

Taliban leaders have warned the public against sending girls to school, and some terrified parents said they would reluctantly comply, at least for now.

“These are the kinds of things that make it hard to live life, hard to hope for the future,” said a mother of three girls in Kabul, who did not want her name used for fear of reprisal. When her children were small, she said, she told them the reign of the Taliban was over for good.

“Every day I tell my girls it is important not to be afraid,” she said. “But even when I am talking, they can see for themselves that I am frightened.”


Julian Barnes, a writer in The Times’ Washington Bureau, contributed to this report.