The Coming Spring Offensive (Again)

by Joshua Foust on 4/19/2007 · 10 comments

In a fit of supreme helpfulness, our friend James from New Eurasia filled in for me at a talk on Wednesday at Georgetown about the much-belabored “Expected Spring Offensive” in Afghanistan. Umm, isn’t it already spring? And hasn’t the Taliban been on the offensive for many months? Whatever, this is a good overview of the looming issues in Afghanistan. James’ account, with a few interruptions from me and links to The Registan’s own coverage of Afghanistan, is below.

On Thursday, April 19, Professor Roger Kangas of the George C. Marshall Center, US Department of Defense gave a talk on the impending spring offensive in Afghanistan. Since neweurasia doesn’t really cover Afghanistan, and Josh over here at Registan does, I figured I would write up some of the points I thought were most interesting as a guest post.

As far as credentials go, Kangas is pretty well qualified to talk about security in Afghanistan. He got his polisci PhD at Indiana (the US Mecca for Central Asia studies) and was Deputy Director of the SAIS Central Asia Institute for a while. He has done a lot of consulting for the US military in various capacities as well.

According to Kangas, literally everybody (governments, NGOs, experts) is in agreement that there will be a serious Taliban offensive in the spring. With that in mind, his presentation was primarily an overview of the current security situation in Afghanistan. He focused on several key challenges facing Afghanistan:

Waning International Interest.

Of the 37 nations participating in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), 25 have caveats. For instance, the Germans won’t participate in counterterrorism. According to the Germans, they are building infrastructure in the north while the US is blowing things up in the south, which explains why the US is mired in counterterrorism operations. Kangas was critical of this viewpoint, quipping that there is a slight “chicken or the egg” proglem.

Another challenge in this category is that funding for Afghanistan is often lumped in with Iraq budgets. While this was good when public opinion (at least in the US) was more positive toward the Iraq war, negative public opinion towards Iraq poses a big problem for Afghanistan. “If I were working Afghan issues I would not want to lump them with Iraq Issues,” Kangas said.

In Kangas’ personal viewpoint, withdrawing international support now would be premature and unfair. He argued that the United States is currently paying for its mistakes in the 1980s, and if it had helped Afghanistan rebuild itself then rather than completely withdrawing there would not be such widespread difficulties now, and the US should therefore be prepared to stay for longer term development projects even after basic security is achieved. Kangas said, “To say ‘10-15 years in Afghanistan’ shouldn’t shock anybody. I think we wanted to do it on the cheap.”


The drug trade has gotten significantly worse in recent years. Kangas said a common misperception is that only the “bad guys” are involved in the drug trade, when in fact pretty much everybody has a hand in it. The Taliban just happen to control the most agriculturally fertile region: the south.

In terms of solutions, Kangas mentioned that several years ago it was suggested that the international community just buy all of the opium and use it for medical purposes in the broader developing world. This option was never really considered, and instead the US basically says, “grow wheat even though you only get 8% of the income you would get from opium.” That said, Kangas contended that even the Afghan government doesn’t want to legalize the drug trade. [Note from Josh: This is clearly not true, as just last week Afghanistan’s UN Ambassador expressed guarded sympathy to the idea.]

The British tried paying people not to grow opium, but the Afghans ended up just moving to the next plot of land (but keeping their word on the land they were paid not to cultivate).


When the Pakistani government consolidated its power, rather than conquer the tribal regions directly, it struck political bargains with tribal leaders and allowed them a degree of self rule. Consequently, Pakistan now has little direct control over the regions, and when Pakistani soldiers serve in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) they refer to it as a foreign tour.

During the turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s, a large number of refugees from Afghanistan settled in the FATA. These refugees formed their own communities, and therefore fell outside the control of the tribal groups, making it even more difficult for the government to control them. The refugees that still remain are likely there to stay.

Hearts and Minds

Kangas was cautiously optimistic of the progress made so far in Afghanistan. He cited the now competing telecommunications companies as evidence of economic development [Note from Josh: Just like the well-known libertarian paradise of Somalia!]. He also argued that President Karzai enjoys some degree of popular support beyond the democratic mandate that usually comes to mind for Westerners. For instance, Karzai has the right mix of clan and family ties to be considered an appropriate leader by the population.

Unfortunately, the Taliban is also waging an effective hearts and minds campaign in the south. Not unlike Hizbullah, the Taliban provides social support, health benefits, unemployment wages, and so forth. Therefore, the current challenge is helping Karzai win the battle between the government and the Taliban to prove who can provide better services to the people.

The Spring Offensive

According to Kangas, the Taliban has no real chance of winning a military victory in the spring (even if they have obtained more advanced weaponry, as some observers are reporting). Their strategy is instead to mimic the Tet Offensive and break the international will to keep going.

Afghanistan’s neighbors, who, unlike Western troops, cannot withdraw to safety, are also worried about this outcome. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other regional clubs (like the Collective Security Treaty Organization) have already begun practicing military scenarios for the eventuality that Afghanistan descends back into chaos.

Special thanks again to James for attending this talk and writing this report.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Younghusband April 20, 2007 at 6:43 am

I was actually thinking about posting on the “Spring Offensive” last week when there was a huge upshots in Canadian troop casualties (first 6, then two within a few days). The spring offensive seems to have arrived for the Canadians at least.

Safrang April 20, 2007 at 5:03 pm

Thanks for the helpful summary. Personally I think the term “Spring Offensive” is being dangerously overused, and like the earlier term “War on Terror” -which is now declining in use- risks actually helping to shape what it merely hopes to describe.
Also, Karzai’s legitimacy is pinned more on his leadership and appeal to the Afghans and not because of his family and clan ties. He is unpopular among many Pashtuns whose ethnicity he shares, and won in the elections because so many Hazaras and Tajiks voted for him. As to what this appeal stems from if not ethnic and clan loyalties, that’s a different story.
Also, I find the fact that many CSTO and other groups in the region are preparing for a worst case scenario in Afghanistan alarmist and useless posturing. Despite the recent setbacks, I do not think that the situation in Afghanistan now warrants talk of worst case scenario – not yet. (Then again that could only be wishful thinking on part of someone who is about to travel there..)

Joshua Foust April 20, 2007 at 5:28 pm

I agree with you, Safrang. In fact, I think it’s misused, as it’s always something that is impending, or expected, or in the future. It is spring now, and the Taliban offensive started last winter.

Totally jealous about the trip there! Take me with! I’m desperate to get some on-the-ground sources about the place.

Afghanistanica April 20, 2007 at 5:30 pm

While the Taliban spring offensive never materialised we must not overlook the very successful spring offensive mounted by the alarmist newsmedia. 😉

And one small note: As for Indiana University being the U.S. Mecca for Central Asian studies, word on the mean streets of Bloomington, Indiana is that contemporary, policy-relevant studies within CEUS @ IU will continue to be further marginalised. Excellent candidates are being turned away if they want to focus on anything that can’t fit into history or literature or Turkey. It’s something to do with US government cuts to languages that it briefly generously funded after 9-11. Its also due to department politics and the desire of some to be a history department. Perhaps UW-Seattle and the planned programs at Chicago and Toronto can fill the void.

I benefited greatly from studying at IU but I might not suggest the program at CEUS to up and coming Central Asianists.

Nathan April 20, 2007 at 6:41 pm

IU turned me away, and I’m pretty convinced it was because I mentioned policy as being my primary interest. I’ve since steered at least two people away from IU to UW, arguing that unless they want to be historians, they’ll probably be happier here.

Joshua Foust April 20, 2007 at 11:11 pm

Nathan & Afghanistanica –

It will come time for me to (re)apply to grad schools this fall, and while I’m almost certainly going to stick with the biggies around the DC, I want to keep my options open, especially for a PhD program. You say Chicago and Toronto? Nathan’s made a pretty good case for UW’s program (though I’m unsure if I’d like to be more of a foreign policy generalist with expertise in the region, or a regionalist with expertise in foreign policy). Do tell more, as I haven’t heard anything of how they’re developing their programs. In fact, the only recent information about U of Chicago I can remember hearing about is when they denied Dan Drezner tenure and he ran off to Tufts.

Anyway, I’d appreciate emails on the subject or resources that could help me narrow my decision.

Safrang April 20, 2007 at 11:39 pm

I am leaving for Afghanistan in a few weeks’ time because 1. I put U of Chicago on the pedestal and started worshiping it till I was too scared to apply there and now its too late and I will feel like a loser for the rest of my life if I do not get at least one of my degrees from there and now that Afghanistanica says they are starting a new and interesting program there I have one more reason to give it a go, and 2. because I’ve been told I can spend a year better working in Afghanistan than wandering aimlessly around DC. That said, I would like to know your thoughts come time for me to apply to schools in the US again.
Also, Josh, and for that matter the rest of you, are all welcome anytime in Afghanistan -so if you happen to be around the block in Central Asia anytime in the next year know that you have a safe place to stay in Kabul. I also know people and have family as far north as Konduz, which is just a hop over the Amu from Tajikistan.
Glad to see my sentiments about the spring offensive are not isolated. It’s ridiculous how some terms gain momentum and before you know it, it’s on every editorialist’s fingertip and every commentator’s tongue.

James April 21, 2007 at 7:43 am

Thanks for all the feedback everyone!

Just to clarify, the comment about Indiana University was just off-hand; I haven’t been there or anything, I just hear that they are more specifically focused on Central Asia than any other university. I have also heard that they are very academically (as opposed to policy) oriented, which also fits with what I am hearing above.

That said, Dr. Kangas is clearly doing okay in policy research after getting his degree at Indiana. Maybe, as you say, things have changed a lot though.

Afghanistanica April 21, 2007 at 9:45 am

What you say is true. A person can do fine with a degree from CEUS @ IU. Many people who have focused on history at Indiana have gone on to do policy/intelligence work. One alumnus, Brian Glyn Williams, studied Ottoman history and is now an expert on Trans-national Jihadi networks. ( )

Lee April 21, 2007 at 8:41 pm

One US soldier on the ground in Zabul Velayat has this to say.The Afghan people are pretty tired of conflict.They are looking forward to growth and development.While there is no doubt of ACM prescence here, the thing that keeps them(the taliban) going are the ties that bind, family and peer relationshhips with locals; not their military prowess.(q.v. Pastunwali code. There is a kind of informal network in place where dialouge makes it back and forth between all the players.In the truest of Afghan traditions a kind of balance has been struck.The safest structure around here is the cell phone transmission tower, What does that tell you?Additionally, an Interesting quote from a local, – My father nor myself feels the need to fight the Americans, everyone felt the need to fight the Russians-

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