by Azam Ahmed
New York Times
One month ago…
MAHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops, according to Afghan officials and local elders.
The Taliban have found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and are now dominating territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul, the capital, in strategic provinces like Kapisa and Nangarhar.
Their advance has gone unreported because most American forces have left the field and officials in Kabul have largely refused to talk about it. The Afghan ministries have not released casualty statistics since an alarming rise in army and police deaths last year.
At a time when an election crisis is threatening the stability of the government, the Taliban’s increasingly aggressive campaign is threatening another crucial facet of the American withdrawal plan, full security by Afghan forces this year.
“They are running a series of tests right now at the military level, seeing how people respond,” one Western official said, describing a Taliban effort to gauge how quickly they could advance. “They are trying to figure out: Can they do it now, or will it have to wait” until after the American withdrawal, the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the coalition has officially ceded security control.
Interviews with local officials and residents in several strategic areas around the country suggest that, given the success of their attacks, the Taliban are growing bolder just two months into the fighting season, at great cost to Afghan military and police forces.
In Kapisa, a verdant province just north of Kabul that includes a vital highway to northern Afghanistan, insurgents are openly challenging and even driving away the security forces in several districts. Security forces in Tagab District take fire daily from the Taliban, who control everything but the district center. Insurgents in Alasay District, northeast of Kabul, recently laid siege to an entire valley for more than a week, forcing hundreds of residents and 45 police officers to flee. At least some of the local police in a neighboring district have cut deals with the Taliban to save themselves.
In the past month, a once-safe district beside the major city of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, has fallen under Taliban control, and a district along a crucial highway nearby is under constant threat from the Taliban. South of Kabul, police forces in significant parts of Logar and Wardak provinces have been under frequent attack, to deadly effect.
But there are only anecdotal reports to help gauge just how deadly the offensive has been. The Afghan defense and interior ministries stopped releasing casualty data after a shocking surge of military and police deaths in 2013 began raising questions about the country’s ability to sustain the losses. By September, with more than 100 soldiers and police officers dying every week, even the commander of the International Security Assistance Force suggested the losses could not be sustained.
Asked for figures on the latest security force casualties this year, both ministries refused to provide data or confirm accounts from local officials. But there are signs that the casualty rate is already likely to be at least as bad as it was last year.
In one important indicator, the United Nations reported a 24 percent rise in civilian casualties for the first half of this year compared with a similar period from 2013, hitting a new peak since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began tracking the data in 2009. More significantly, for the first time, the highest number of those casualties came from ground fighting between the Afghan forces and insurgents rather than from roadside bombs.
The United Nations found that more fighting was taking place near populous areas, closer to the district centers that serve as the government seats. Ground violence also seemed to increase in areas where coalition bases had been closed, as the Taliban felt more emboldened to launch attacks without fear of reprisal.
One important effect of those gains, particularly where police forces are being driven away, is that the Taliban are establishing larger sections of lawless territory where they can intimidate local populations. They become safe havens, and staging grounds for more ambitious attacks against Kabul and other major cities, like the militant assault on Kabul’s airport on July 17.
In the immediate vicinity of the country’s main cities, the Afghan military was still holding up well, according to American and Afghan commanders. But as more marginal districts have come under unexpectedly heavy attack, the military planners’ expectations have been tested.
One widely accepted prediction was that soon after 2014, the Taliban would gain in rural areas and traditional strongholds, as the government made tough decisions about what to fight for and what to let go. Places of no strategic value in remote areas of the south and east, some officials said, could afford to be forgotten.
But heavy attacks, and some territorial losses, are already happening in those places, earlier than predicted.
On July 9, the Taliban overran a district center in Ghor Province, a rugged and violent area close to the center of the country, which left Afghan forces scrambling to reclaim it and smarting from the embarrassment. On Saturday, militants stormed Registan District in Kandahar, killing five police officers, including the district police chief, in a battle that continued into the evening.
The heavy fighting earlier this summer in northern Helmand Province, long a Taliban stronghold and a center of opium poppy production, was mostly expected. But the breadth of the Taliban assault, which is now said by locals to extend to four districts, has surprised many, and foreshadowed a more ambitious reach for the insurgents.
The efforts of this fighting season have not been solely in the countryside, or traditional strongholds like those in Helmand. The Taliban have made strides in Nangarhar Province, home to one of the most economically vibrant cities in the country and a strategically important region. Surkh Rod, a district that borders the provincial capital Jalalabad and was safe to visit just three months ago, has become dangerous to enter.
“The difference is that five months ago there were more government forces here; now it is the Taliban,” said Nawab, a resident of Shamshapor village.
Bati Kot District, too, has become more dangerous. Outside the district center, residents say, the Taliban dominate a crucial swath of territory that straddles the main highway leading from Kabul to the eastern border with Pakistan. Villagers living in the district say the Taliban force them to feed and house insurgents, and threaten to kill them if they refuse.
Much like Nangarhar, Kapisa is connected directly to Kabul, presenting a troubling threat for the government as it struggles to safeguard the security corridor around the capital. Trouble in three districts has been the focus of a concerted American Special Forces campaign to ferret out the insurgents, who many say appear more trained and disciplined than the average Taliban.
“The command and control is incredible,” said one American Special Forces officer who has fought with his men in insurgent-controlled valleys in Kapisa. “They have found an awesome safe haven.”
The biggest fear for the province stems from Tagab and Alasay districts. Though there is an entire battalion of Afghan soldiers in the area, the vast majority of the fighting and dying are done by the police forces.
Two weeks ago, in the Askin Valley area of Alasay, insurgents surrounded a village where the local and national police had only recently taken root. Tribal and interpersonal rivalries fueled the animosity toward the police, but the consequence was clear: The government was not welcome.
An estimated 60 insurgents surrounded Askin Valley and engaged in a gunfight with about 35 local and 10 national police officers in the area, according to police officials. The two sides fought for more than a week, with coalition aircraft entering the area to offer support for the beleaguered security forces. Eventually, the police were forced to retreat, along with hundreds of villagers.
Two police officials in the area, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, relayed the account. One, a local police officer, said the Taliban’s reach permeated the entire district, and the security forces were consigned to their bases, trying to stay alive.
“The Afghan security forces are controlling the bazaar for one in every 24 hours,” the commander said. “From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., the police, army and local police come out of their outposts and buy what they need, then they go back to their bases.”