It has become a rite of spring during the last three decades in Afghanistan. After months of cold weather, the spring thaw makes it possible for militants to leave their winter shelters and travel off road along remote mountain paths to carry out guerrilla attacks.
In recent years, NATO and U.S. military officials have referred to the increase of militant violence that comes with the warmer weather as a "Taliban spring offensive."
But the spring fighting has never been an offensive in the conventional military sense of the word. Rather, it has been a surge in guerrilla violence -- waves of suicide attacks, roadside bombings, and even assassinations of Kabul-appointed judges or local administrators.
Tim Ripley, a military analyst and correspondent for "Jane's Defense Weekly," said that past spring offensives have meant increased mobility for Taliban fighters to move supplies and fighters across the border from Pakistan. That allows fighters based in Afghanistan to re-arm and intensify their operations against NATO, U.S., and Afghan government forces.
Although NATO officials are no longer referring to a "spring offensive," Ripley says the intensification of fighting in the region has already begun, with attacks on NATO supply routes that link Pakistan's port city of Karachi with bases in Afghanistan. Those attacks, he said, are "linked to the movement of the insurgency and intensification of the insurgency in [Pakistan's] North West Frontier Province."
Within Afghanistan, Ripley said, "the political situation is becoming increasingly unstable as we approach the election. The Taliban see this as the moment to apply maximum pressure -- to push more and more provinces and more districts away from the [Kabul] government and undermine the control of the government."
Ripley tells RFE/RL that a clear Taliban strategy for 2009 already is apparent.
"I wouldn't call it a spring strategy. I think it's a strategy for the year," he said. "The elections are scheduled for the summer or early autumn.... They are preparing the ground for that -- to deliver what could be the coup de grace to the Karzai government."
Alongside the spring surge in violence, villagers who cooperate with Afghan government troops or international forces are often faced with an upsurge in threats from militants. Taliban loyalists are known for leaving threatening "night letters" posted on the mud brick walls of village compounds.
Ripley says another way the Taliban is trying to undermine stability is to set up shadow administrations that challenge the authority of the local officials who have been appointed by the central government in Kabul.
"In every district where they have a presence, they set up a shadow administration, a shadow mayor, a shadow provincial chief or shadow judges and courts," Ripley said. "Depending on the level of insurgent presence in a province, that shadow organization either remains undercover or overtly comes out into the open."
Those shadow authorities have made their presence known in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan, and along the Pakistani border, Ripley said.
In 2006, a resurgent Taliban could be seen concentrating fighters for attacks on the forward operations bases of foreign troops or on isolated Afghan police posts. But that tactic exposed militants to NATO air strikes and led to high numbers of Taliban casualties.
Recent analysis by Tundra Strategic Security Solutions -- a Canadian-owned private security consulting firm -- suggests that militants carried out concentrated ground attacks less frequently during 2008 -- despite a handful of high-profile skirmishes.
Instead, there was a marked increase in roadside bomb attacks -- like those seen in Iraq -- many using a home-made armor piercing device known as an "explosively-formed projectile."
As Seen In Iraq
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak says it is no accident that the weaponry and fighting tactics of Iraqi insurgents are increasingly being seen in Afghanistan.
"Since last year, as a result of the success of the surge in Iraq, there has been a flow of foreign terrorists into Afghanistan," Wardak said. In some conflicts in 2008, "actually 60 percent of the total force which we have encountered were foreign fighters," he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama's plan for Afghanistan calls for as many as 30,000 more U.S. troops to be deployed there -- a task that could be made more difficult by the attacks on NATO supply routes in Pakistan, and by Kyrgyzstan's intention to evict U.S. troops from a strategic logistical base at Manas International Airport near Bishkek.
Meanwhile, calls by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for more troop contributions for the Afghan mission by NATO countries have failed to garner the numbers that military planners say are now necessary.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on February 4 said that some members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- comprised of seven former Soviet republics -- could help by deploying troops to Afghanistan.
"The Russian Federation and other CSTO member states, countries of Central Asia, are ready for full-fledged, comprehensive cooperation with the United States of America and other countries of the coalition in combating terrorism in the region," Medvedev said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon insists on an international strategy that combines economic development with the continuing military mission of the UN-mandated and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
"The plan we have focuses on investment in key sectors: agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and on making aid more effective. Where there is stability, we must invest in development. Where stability is tenuous, we must focus on restoring the confidence of Afghanistan," Ban said.
Defense Minister Wardak agrees that there is not a purely military solution to Afghanistan's security conundrum. But he concedes that as long as the Afghan government and its international supporters fail to provide security for all of the Afghan population, the situation will continue to be exploited by the Taliban.