US military: Taliban spring offensive unlikely in Afghanistan

Concerns grow over inadequate US military intelligence about Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in Pakistan

The Taliban are unlikely to launch a spring offensive in Afghanistan this year because all their energies will be focused in Pakistan, United States military officials said. But as that battle heats up, US officials added that they do not have enough intelligence on the ground in Pakistan.

Taliban and Al Qaeda militants have killed more than 600 people in Pakistan in recent months, making 2007 the deadliest year for militancy in Pakistan. Although Pakistan's military has 100,000 troops stationed along the border of Afghanistan, violent extremism has spread inland to large cities like Lahore, where a suicide bomber killed 25 policemen in early January. Pakistan's government and the CIA have also blamed Taliban militants, working with Al Qaeda, for the assassination in late December of Benazir Bhutto.

The deteriorating security makes Pakistan more of a viable target for the Taliban, US officials told the Associated Press.

Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other militants are staying behind in Pakistan to fight the government there, contributing to a drop in cross-border infiltrations into eastern Afghanistan, a top US commander said Wednesday.

Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez said he does not expect insurgents to mount a spring offensive this year in eastern Afghanistan, once one of the most violent areas of the country.
"The enemy will try to take advantage of some of the challenges they are having over there (in Pakistan) right now," said Rodriguez, who commands US forces in eastern Afghanistan.

The New York Times reports that Rear Adm. William J. Fallon recently traveled to Pakistan to meet with Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Musharraf's successor as chief of the Army staff.

The commanders discussed "the overall security situation in the region," a spokesman for the Pakistan Army said. Admiral Fallon was recently quoted as saying that the US military would play a greater role in training Pakistani forces and would provide technical advice to its troops.

That meeting comes as US officials said that they do not have enough intelligence about Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a lawless zone where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have set up a new base.

The Associated Press reports:

"There's gaps in intelligence," [Dell Dailey, the State Department's counterterrorism chief] said during a meeting with reporters. "We don't have enough information about what's going on there. Not on al-Qaida. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban."
Dailey, a retired Army lieutenant general with extensive background in special operations, said the lack of information makes him "uncomfortable." Yet the solution to the problem rests mainly with the Pakistanis, who would likely see too much U.S. involvement as an unwelcome intrusion.

During his trip to Davos, Switzerland, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf tried to allay the heightened concerns. But he may have added to them by revealing that his soldiers on the border are not actively hunting for Osama bin Laden.

The New York Times blog "The Lede" quotes Musharraf as saying,

The 100,000 troops that we are using … are not going around trying to locate Osama bin Laden and Zawahri, frankly," Musharraf told a conference at the French Institute for International Relations. "They are operating against terrorists, and in the process, if we get them, we will deal with them certainly."

But that's not what the US government wants to hear. The New York Times reported in early January that concerns about catching Mr. bin Laden have led the US military to consider plans for a covert push of its Special Forces inside Pakistan:

President Bush's senior national security advisers are debating whether to expand the authority of the Central Intelligence Agency and the military to conduct far more aggressive covert operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
In part, the White House discussions may be driven by a desire for another effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Currently, C.I.A. operatives and Special Operations forces have limited authority to conduct counterterrorism missions in Pakistan based on specific intelligence about the whereabouts of those two men, who have eluded the Bush administration for more than six years, or of other members of their terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, hiding in or near the tribal areas.

So far, Musharraf has been categorical in refusing any direct US intervention, which means that intelligence gathering will remain limited.

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