"This year there was no winter off-season from combat," said Army Maj. Sean Morrow, currently deployed to Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar Province as operations officer for the 10th Mountain Division's, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment. "It went from being an off season to a preseason, in anticipation of a very intense fighting season next summer."
Historically, the scale and intensity of combat in the Afghanistan war decreases during the winter fighting season, when harsh weather forces Taliban insurgents to return to enclaves in Pakistan to regroup before a renewed round of combat in the spring -- but that hasn't happened this year, U.S. military leaders said.
They say the Afghan National Army (ANA) is looking to consolidate gains from a successful 2013 campaign against the Taliban by continuing combat operations through the winter, carrying forward the momentum of their victories in the run-up to a possible complete withdrawal of U.S. military aid in 2014 if a status of forces agreement cannot be reached between Washington and Kabul.
"At the tactical level the ANA is winning the fight," said Army Maj. Norman Stephenson, operations officer for the 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment (4-25 FA), serving out of Forward Operating Base Clark in eastern Afghanistan. "Now we need to make sure they can sustain the fight."
The Taliban have also not relented in combat operations as they typically do in the winter, pushing back against a disastrous year of fighting in 2013 to establish a firm foothold in the country before U.S. forces pull out, and looking to disrupt next year's presidential election.
"The Taliban knows that they lost the fight in 2013 and this could be their last chance to fight Americans," Morrow said. "And the ANA recognizes that they can't lose the momentum from the 2013 fighting season before America pulls out -- so both sides are in a rush to the finish line, and there is no off-season this year. Next year will definitely be violent."
The U.S. military recently entered a new phase of the Afghanistan conflict, moving into an "advise and assist" operation, which has largely taken conventional U.S. forces out of combat (with the exception of special operations forces, which still conduct unilateral combat missions) and placed the war almost entirely in the hands of the ANA.
U.S. forces have seen a sharp drop in combat deaths this year due to their diminished presence on the battlefield -- 118 Americans were killed in Afghanistan so far in 2013, compared with 310 in 2012, and 418 in 2011.
According to 4-25 FA Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, about 90% of combat against the Taliban insurgency is now conducted unilaterally by the ANA.
"It's never a problem to get them to go and fight," Marshall said. "And now they're doing it with more discipline. They're doing a good job."
"These guys know how to fight," Stephenson added, referring to the ANA. "They're doing a fantastic job, and they're good on their own. We're only advising at the brigade level."
Despite the anticipated uptick in violence next year, the U.S. military insists that the ANA is capable of sustaining the fight against the Taliban on its own, and the U.S. will not be drawn back into combat operations.
"It's difficult for any soldier to stand back and watch a fight," Morrow said. "But I don't see an escalation of American commitment, no matter what happens next spring."
"The U.S. is the bat boy on the side," Stephenson added. "And the Afghan Army is here to play the ball game."
Nolan Peterson is a U.S. Air Force veteran currently reporting for UPI from Afghanistan.
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