KABUL, Afghanistan — For Taliban militants and U.S. strategists alike, all roads in this impoverished country of mountain passes, arid deserts and nearly impassable goat tracks lead to this ancient capital of 3 million people nestled in a high and narrow valley.
The Taliban made their intentions clear over the weekend, mounting spectacular coordinated attacks that spawned an 18-hour battle with Afghan and NATO forces. And now, the U.S. is gearing up for what may be the last major American-run offensive of the war – a bid to secure the approaches to the city.
While bombings and shootings elsewhere in Afghanistan receive relatively little attention, attacks in the capital alarm the general population, undermine the government's reputation and frighten foreigners into fleeing the country. That's why insurgents on Sunday struck locations that were so fortified they could cause little or no damage, including the diplomatic quarter, the parliament and a NATO base.
"These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.
The U.S.-led spring offensive, expected to begin in the coming weeks, may be NATO's last chance to shore up Kabul's defenses before a significant withdrawal of combat troops limits its options. The focus will be regions that control the main access routes, roads and highways into Kabul from the desert south and the mountainous east. These routes are used not only by militants but by traders carrying goods from Pakistan and Iran.
The strategy in eastern Afghanistan involves clearing militants from provinces such as Ghazni, just south of the capital. The pivotal region links Kabul with the Taliban homeland in the south and provinces bordering Pakistan to the east.
NATO, under U.S. command, will also conduct more operations in eastern provinces such as Paktika and Paktia that are considered major infiltration routes to the capital from insurgent safe havens in Pakistan.
Afghan and U.S. officials blamed the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which is part of the Taliban and has close links with al-Qaida, for the weekend attacks that left 36 insurgents, eight policemen and three civilians dead in Kabul and three eastern provinces. But Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said officials have not concluded whether the attacks emanated out of Pakistan.
Declining numbers of international troops in the coming months are also forcing coalition forces to focus less on remote and thinly populated places such as eastern Nuristan. They hope to move responsibility for those areas to the Afghan security forces.
Coalition forces last summer made gains in traditional Taliban strongholds such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south, areas they must now hold with fewer troops. By September, as many as 10,000 U.S. Marines are scheduled to leave Helmand and hand over the lead for security to Afghan forces in the former Taliban stronghold.
"It's going to be a very busy summer," Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander, said recently. "The campaign will balance the drawdown of the surged forces with the consolidation of our holdings in the south, continued combat operations" and an effort to push Afghan security forces into the lead.
The U.S. this month finished moving the 1st brigade of the 82nd Airborne into Ghazni to help clear out a Taliban stronghold in Andar district. It could be one of the largest remaining American clearing operations of the war.
It is not known when that operation will take place, but Ghazni is located at a key chokepoint with the country's main highway from the south to Kabul running through it. The highway runs just past Andar district.
"If you secure Andar, you have secured Ghazni, and you have secured Afghanistan," the governor of Ghazni, Musa Khan, told U.S. forces last week at a handover ceremony with departing Polish troops.
Eliminating the Ghazni problem is an important part of the plan to transition security responsibility from foreign forces to the nascent Afghan National Security Forces.
After September, the U.S.-led coalition may not have enough troops on the ground for such large-scale operations and will increasingly have to depend on the Afghans to take the lead.
The U.S.-led coalition is keen to show that the 330,000-strong Afghan forces are capable of filling in a vacuum left by the withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. forces by the end of September. It also wants to use them more and more in operations against insurgent forces in key battlegrounds such as the east.
Last week Afghan forces carried out an operation in eastern Nuristan, a Taliban stronghold, with only support from coalition forces.
"This was yet another example of the successful transition we have been seeing throughout the past year, as the ANSF are planning, leading and executing very productive combat operations against the insurgency," Allen said. "We expect to see more of these types of successful ANSF-led operations as we progress further into the spring and summer," he added.
Afghan forces are to peak at 352,000 by the end of the year and are expected to take over much of the fighting as the U.S. draws down an additional 23,000 troops to 68,000 by the end of September. U.S. troop levels reached a high of about 100,000 last year.
Estimates of the Taliban fighting force hover around 25,000.
The Afghan army and police are now in charge of security for areas home to half the nation's population, with coalition forces in a support role. The coalition hopes to keep handing over control until Afghan forces are fully in charge by the end of 2013, with all combat troops scheduled to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014.
The U.S. may retain a small number of forces past that date to help train and mentor the Afghan army and help with counterterrorism efforts.
There is very little appetite in Western countries for keeping troops in Afghanistan, but U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Sunday's attack shows the danger of withdrawing international forces too quickly.
"There's a very dangerous enemy out there with capabilities and with safe havens in Pakistan. To get out before the Afghans have a full grip on security, which is a couple of years out, would be to invite the Taliban, Haqqani, and al-Qaida back in and set the stage for another 9/11," Crocker said.
AP writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.
Afghan special forces hold their guns after a gun battle near the Afghan parliament in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April 16, 2012. A brazen, 18-hour Taliban attack on the Afghan capital ended early Monday when insurgents who had holed up overnight in two buildings were overcome by heavy gunfire from Afghan-led forces and pre-dawn air assaults from U.S.-led coalition helicopters. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)
A soldier, part of the NATO forces, carries a sniffing dog after a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
Afghan special forces are seen on top of a building that was occupied by militants, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
NATO soldiers run during a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 15, 2012. The Taliban launched a series of coordinated attacks on as many as seven sites across the Afghan capital on Sunday, targeting NATO bases, the parliament and Western embassies. Militants also launched near-simultaneous assaults in three other eastern cities. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
An Afghan woman cries as she talks on the phone to her family during a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)
An Afghan soldier aims his rocket launcher toward a building, unseen, occupied by militants during a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahmad Nazar)
NATO soldiers run during a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, April 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
An Afghan soldier stands guard as a helicopter flies low over the scene of a suicide attack on the U.S.-led provincial reconstruction team (PRT) compound in the Behsood district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday, April 15, 2012. (AP Phot/Rahmat Gul)
An Afghan man examines the remains of a car after three suicide bombers were killed before they reached Jalalabad airport, which security forces say was their target, in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday, April 15, 2012. (AP Phot/Rahmat Gul)
U.S. Army soldiers respond after a suicide attack on the U.S.-led provincial reconstruction team (PRT) compound in the Behsood district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday, April 15, 2012. (AP Phot/Rahmat Gul)
Gunfire and smoke is seen coming out of a building occupied by militants during a battle with Afghan-led forces, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April 16, 2012. The Afghan capital awoke Monday to a second day of explosions and heavy gunfire as Afghan-led forces worked to defeat insurgents holed up in the building in the heart of the city and another near parliament. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
The body of an alleged militant is seen on the ground after a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)
Afghan police officers pass a building that was used by militants in a gun battle, near the Afghan parliament in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)
The bodies of alleged militants are seen on the ground after a gun battle in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, April 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)
Police take their position alongside a giant picture of Afghan national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, on the roof of police headquarters in Kabul on May 7, 2012. The United States has freed up to 20 detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan over the past two years in an effort to promote reconciliation with insurgent groups, the US embassy said. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GettyImages)
An Afghan youth looks out from an intricately carved truck window at a police checkpoint in Kabul on May 7, 2012. Afghan forces are ready to take responsibility for security in 2013, the defence ministry said on May 7, reacting to a pledge to withdraw French troops early by president-elect Francois Hollande. Hollande made a campaign promise to pull French soldiers out of Afghanistan this year, ending his country's combat role two years earlier than NATO's carefully crafted plan to hand security control to Afghans by 2014. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/GettyImages)
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U.S. servicemen inside of a plane before their departure to Afghanistan from the U.S. transit center Manas, 30 km outside the Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, on March 27, 2012. A planned withdrawal of US and coalition forces by the end of 2014 hinges on building up Afghan army and police, but the surge in 'fratricidal' attacks threatens to undermine that strategy, with strained relations between NATO troops and Afghan forces marked by distrust and cultural clashes. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/GettyImages)
An Afghan boy walks with his cow at sunset in Mazar-i Sharif, capital of the Balkh province on April 9, 2012. Agriculture has traditionally driven the Central Asian nation's economy, with wheat and cereal production being mainstays and quality fruits, especially pomegranates, apricots, grapes, melons, and mullberries being exported to many countries. (QAIS USYAN/AFP/GettyImages)
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on May 3, 2012. Karzai hailed a new pact with the United States but warned that tough negotiations on Washington's military presence in his war-torn country after 2014 still lay ahead. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GettyImages)
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