KABUL -- At a pivotal moment when U.S. forces are winding down combat operations in Afghanistan and handing over the lead security role to the Afghan government, Taliban insurgents announced Saturday the launch of their annual spring offensive.
In an elaborately worded statement, the Taliban proclaimed a "monumental spring operation" would begin today with the goal of "defeating this era's Western invaders." The Islamist insurgent group, tossed from power by U.S.-led forces in late 2001, is threatening a new round of mass suicide bombings and "insider" attacks on U.S. and coalition forces.
After announcing a similar major warm-weather offensive last year, the Taliban launched an attack in Kabul featuring suicide bombings and a deadly, 18-hour street battle that targeted the U.S. embassy and the headquarters of the NATO-led international security force.
The threat of more insider killings comes as the rate of such attacks has slowed in recent months, after U.S. and Afghan government forces upgraded their security procedures. Afghan soldiers and police -- and Taliban infiltrators posing as security force members -- killed 62 international troops last year and four so far this year, according to coalition figures.
The International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led coalition, which includes about 66,000 U.S. troops, responded Saturday by dismissing the Taliban challenge.
"The Afghan people should not fear Taliban threats," a statement said. "The Afghan National Security Forces have wisely used the winter months to prepare for taking over the security lead throughout Afghanistan by mid-2013. They are ready."
Also Saturday, ISAF announced a military plane had crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing four ISAF service members. The coalition said the cause of the crash was under investigation but initial reporting indicated no insurgent activity in the area. ISAF did not specify the nationality of those killed, leaving it to member nations to identify casualties pending notification of next of kin.
A Western official in Kabul, responding to the Taliban statement, said Afghan forces are capable of blunting any insurgent offensive.
"This will be the first fighting season where the Afghans will come into the lead... It's an important milestone," the official said.
The Taliban frequently issues florid -- and often false -- statements boasting of accomplishments or threatening attacks on coalition forces, Westerners or Afghans who support the foreign troops or the Afghan government. The insurgents typically return to sanctuaries in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan in winter, emerging to launch attacks when the weather warms.
Saturday's statement, issued by the Leadership Council of the Islamic Emirate, said operations would feature unspecified "special military tactics" and "collective martyrdom operations" -- a reference to suicide bomb attacks. The offensive, it said, would focus on "bases of foreign invaders, their diplomatic centers and military air bases" in an attempt to "inflict heavy casualties on the foreign transgressors."
-- Los Angeles Times