Although snow still blocks Afghanistan's high mountain passes, warmer temperatures have already thawed the northeastern part of Helmand Province.
That's the location of the Kajaki Dam -- the key reconstruction project in southern Afghanistan. If engineers can rebuild the hydroelectric generators -- and restore 110 kilometers of power lines to Kandahar -- some 1.8 million Afghans will have access to a reliable source of energy for the first time in decades. Thousands of jobs could be created.
Taliban fighters have held the town of Musa Qala -- about 25 kilometers from the dam -- since seizing it on February 2. The governor of Helmand Province says hundreds of Taliban fighters -- bolstered by Pakistani, Chechen, and Uzbek militants -- crossed the border from Pakistan this week in an attempt to derail the dam's reconstruction. NATO confirms that Taliban fighters have been firing rockets from a distance but causing no serious damage.
From Kajaki, "London Times" correspondent Anthony Loyd reports that the past six weeks have been "filled with fighting" for hundreds of British Royal Marines.
Targeting Kajaki Dam
But Britain's Lieutenant General David Richards -- commander of NATO-led ISAF troops in Afghanistan until the day Musa Qala was seized -- says NATO is in control of the area around the dam.
Richards told RFE/RL at the London symposium, which was organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, that he would not call the recent fighting a "Taliban offensive."
"It's actually the result of ISAF forces clearing the Taliban out of that area to allow the Kajaki Dam Project to take place," Richards said. "The Taliban don't want [the project] to take place, because they see that as a big propaganda coup for the government and the international community. So it's ISAF going into areas [that the Taliban] don't want to see us in."
Richards said support for the Taliban has fallen dramatically in southern Afghanistan in the past year, since militants failed to achieve their stated goal of capturing Kandahar. He said the latest Taliban violence is an attempt by militants to show that they are not defeated.
With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Chinese engineers plan to restart work on the Kajaki Dam's power station soon. Work was halted in 2006 because of almost daily mortar attacks on the project's base camp. But the Chinese subcontractors will not restart their work until a 6-kilometer security zone is created around the dam.
Richards declared early in 2007 that the security zone has already been established.
In London, he said recent fighting is the result of NATO efforts to keep Taliban fighters from returning to the area around the dam.
"Well, that's why the fighting is taking place -- because we've got to provide room to allow the development to take place," Richards said. "It is a hugely important project for the people of the whole southern region."
Many experts speaking at the London symposium agreed that the Taliban appears to be losing momentum.
David Kilcullen, chief strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism at the U.S. State Department, said fighting already under way this spring does not signal Taliban success.
"There is a seasonal character to the war in Afghanistan, and there always has been," Kilcullen said. "You know, we call it a 'spring offensive.' They call it 'spring.' Every spring, someone is launching an offensive. So I think we don't want to overstate necessarily the strength of the Taliban in the south. And certainly NATO and the Afghan government are in a much stronger position as well in the south. So I think we can anticipate an increased Taliban effort. But that doesn't necessarily translate into Taliban success."
Killkullen claimed Taliban activities have been limited to several provinces, with nearly 90 percent of the population "living in areas not affected by them." But he warned that the Taliban is now comprised of a "third generation" of more sophisticated fighters -- a tough adversary that is far from defeat.
And he said regular reinforcements continue to cross the border from Pakistan.
'Comprehensive Approach Needed'
The London symposium was attended by 300 defense and security specialists, NATO and British Commonwealth military attaches, and British parliamentarians.
Former Afghan ministers and opposition figures, academics, and specialists were also in attendance.
The gathering came as visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai met the same day with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Ali Jalali, a professor of the Near East/South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington and a former Afghan interior minister, concluded that the current strategy needs broadening.
"Insufficient investment in Afghanistan and also failure to address strategic issues regarding the situation inside Afghanistan and in the region led to deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan," Jalali said. "So what is needed now is a comprehensive approach: troops, money, and a regional approach."
Some speakers at the symposium argued that the Taliban could have been defeated long ago, if there had been greater cooperation with Pakistan on security, more investment in reconstruction, and more troops from the 37 countries in the antiterrorism coalition.