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KABUL—The Taliban warned they would launch a major countrywide offensive in Afghanistan in the coming days, momentarily shifting the focus from President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington.
Afghan officials dismissed the Taliban's warning as nothing more than blustery rhetoric, and coalition officers said they, too, didn't think the militants could sow chaos on the scale suggested in a statement posted on their website Saturday.
But "we'll obviously be looking to see what happens Monday," the day the Taliban warned the offensive would begin, said a North Atlantic Treaty Organization officer. "Our guard is pretty high every day. This doesn't change anything."
The Taliban said their forces would begin laying siege Monday to Afghanistan's major cities and blockading Afghan and NATO bases. The militants called their coming offensive "al-Fatah" ('to conquer' in Arabic) and warned there would be "ambushes, detonations of explosive devices, assassinations of government officials, suicide bombings and detainment of foreign invaders."
The warning appeared timed to a series of coming events. The first, Mr. Karzai's visit to Washington, starts Monday and is aimed at smoothing over the rough relations between Kabul and the Obama administration. A series of major attacks could distract from the trip and underscore just how far Mr. Karzai's government and its Western backers have to go before the Taliban is neutralized.
Later in May, Mr. Karzai is planning to convene a so-called Peace Jirga — a gathering of politicians, elders and other prominent Afghans — to chart out a path for talks with the insurgents. Alongside peace talks, the Karzai government and its Western backers are also planning to lure away low-level fighters with cash and jobs.
The Taliban, in a statement Saturday, offered their own version of that plan, saying it would provide "material incentives" to any Afghan soldiers or police who defected.
The Taliban also said they would take care to ensure the safety of ordinary Afghans. Civilian casualties, especially those caused by NATO forces, are a longstanding concern among Afghans, including Mr. Karzai, who is expected to raise the matter in Washington.
Many Afghans fear there will be more civilian casualties in the coming months as thousands of NATO and Afghan soldiers pour into the southern city of Kandahar and push out to the districts that surround it. The area is the Taliban's birthplace and strategic heartland, and coalition special operations forces are already quietly hunting down midlevel commanders in the area.
The Taliban are also stepping up activity in and around the city, and the offensive announced Saturday seemed to be a bid by the insurgents
to counter allied efforts to win over the Kandahar's populace with promises of increased safety and better governance in the coming months.
The Taliban have already stepped up its suicide bombings in Kandahar, and the militants are targeting prominent officials and tribal elders in the city and surrounding districts. The latest assassination came Saturday, when the insurgents took credit for gunning down an official and two of his bodyguards in Arghandab, a volatile district north of the city.
Despite the increasing volatility in Kandahar, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry was quick to downplay Saturday's statement, calling it a "desperate move."
"This statement is just more propaganda by the Taliban," said Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi. "The enemy is in a defensive position, not in an offensive position."
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