The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Taliban is targeting areas around key provincial capitals, looking for weak spots as foreign troops withdraw

Afghan shopkeepers inspect their damaged shops on May 1, after a car bomb explosion in Logar province, Afghanistan. (Matiullah Sarwar/AP)
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KABUL — The Taliban has carried out a string of attacks near vulnerable provincial capitals across Afghanistan since May 1, a marked escalation in violence that officials say is a sign the group is testing for defensive weak points and assessing the government’s capacity to provide air support as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw.

The attacks are largely focused on towns in provinces where the Taliban has had a strong presence for years. In Helmand, Zabul, Ghazni and Logar, the Taliban holds much of the rural territory, with urban centers as islands of government control. Recent militant attacks have allowed the fighters to encroach closer to those capitals, overtaking perimeter outposts and villages.

Unlike other Taliban offensives in recent months, these have not triggered a barrage of heavy U.S. air support, according to eight local officials in those four provinces and others. In Helmand, the Taliban attacks followed the handover of a U.S. base to Afghan control. In Farah, a member of parliament said he began seeing an increase in Taliban attacks once American surveillance drones disappeared from the sky in recent months along with a small unit of U.S. forces stationed at a base there.

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U.S. Central Command declined to answer questions about the lack of air support and referred to statements made by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a news conference Thursday. He said the withdrawal is the primary focus of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has not said when or if U.S. air support for Afghan ground forces would halt completely.

The wave of violence amid a logistically taxing withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops will be a key indicator of how Afghan forces will fare on their own. While it’s unclear how long the Taliban will be able to sustain the group’s current operational tempo, the continued assaults are eroding the morale of the country’s security forces, according to an Afghan official and a Kabul-based diplomat. The official and the diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

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Afghan and U.S. officials anticipated an uptick in violence following the withdrawal, and an intense diplomatic effort was initiated earlier this year to avoid such a scenario. The United States pressured the two sides to agree to a deal that included a cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement, but it was unsuccessful. Talks are ongoing to reach a similar agreement before the withdrawal is complete.

Ezatullah Wafa knew the fighting was moving in on his village when the explosions began to steadily sound closer and closer this week. From Ainak, just outside Helmand’s provincial capital, the 26-year-old and his family piled into their car and drove as fast as they could into the relative safety of the capital Tuesday.

In the past, when heavy fighting raged in the desert outside Wafa’s home, he would hear the roar of warplanes and the thud of bombs within half an hour.

“This time the government jets didn’t reach us for 48 hours,” he said.

During that time, Wafa said, the Taliban reached within a kilometer of the capital, Lashkar Gah. He said the Afghan soldiers only began emerging from their bases when government artillery and tanks arrived.

Scenarios like the one Wafa described have played out across Afghanistan over the past week. In most cases, Taliban fighters have tightened their grip on cities or moved closer to the city limits. Some officials and civilians say Afghan forces abandoned their posts as soon as the Taliban assaults began.

A doctor in Helmand who watched the Taliban advance from Lashkar Gah said, “All the Taliban fighters did was stomp their feet, as if they were just kicking the dust off their boots,” before police abandoned some 10 checkpoints on the city’s edges. The doctor spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.

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The Afghan Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Afghan forces have relied heavily on U.S. airstrikes for the past two decades to push back Taliban attacks, and they credit the foreign air power for allowing government troops to retake districts overrun by the militants. The United States has spent more than $88 billion on training and equipping Afghanistan’s security forces, but the country’s troops still struggle to hold territory and repel Taliban assaults unassisted.

The Taliban’s political office in Doha said the group has not issued any new military orders.

“There is no new decision from the leadership to increase violence or take provincial capitals,” said Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the movement’s political office. Shaheen said the reports of Taliban attacks are untrue and “politically motivated.”

Shaheen said the Taliban has “no plan to reach power through military takeover because it will not solve the Afghan issue.” He said such attempts in the past have “only prolonged the war.”

“Our focus is on peaceful and negotiated settlement of the Afghan issue. We hope to reach a solution as soon as possible through the negotiations process that is underway now,” he said.

In the days following May 1, thousands of Taliban fighters massed around Ghazni city, an army base on the city’s edge was overrun and two dozen Afghan soldiers surrendered or were captured, according to conflicting reports.

“The withdrawal gives the Taliban the ability to increase attacks,” said Muhammad Ali Alizada, a member of parliament from Ghazni, one of the hardest-hit provinces.

It was one of the most intense waves of violence Ghazni has experienced in years, Alizada said, and unlike other similar assaults, government forces received no U.S. air support.

“The lack of air support is already having a negative impact,” he said, explaining that morale among government forces has plummeted and commanders on the ground have limited visibility because the United States removed surveillance drones from Ghazni’s skies.

Taliban forces have also begun to mass in large numbers around the provincial capital, gatherings that would have been scattered just months ago by a U.S. drone or aircraft just passing overhead, he said. The Afghan air force is supporting government ground operations, but it is stretched thin and only able to respond to the most urgent requests, according to two Afghan officers coordinating operations. The officers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.

The next five months will be critical, Alizada said. “If Afghan forces can survive and hold the provincial capitals [until winter], the fighting will cool down.”

While some believe the Taliban attacks are laying the groundwork for an eventual military takeover of the country, other Afghan officials say they believe the moves are aimed at gaining more leverage at the negotiating table with the Afghan government.

“They are just trying to show the people, the media and the world that they are powerful,” said Zabul police chief Mohammad Wais Samimi, of the two consecutive Taliban attacks on his provincial capital Qalat since the May 1 withdrawal began. He said the Taliban was able to overrun an outpost and push closer to the capital, but he doesn’t believe they have the strength to take the city.

In western Afghanistan, Humayun Shaheedzada, a member of parliament from Farah, described a much more dire situation. “Without air support, honestly I don’t know how long our local forces can last.”

Shaheedzada said he also believes the wave of violence is intended as a show of force, but one that will cost Afghan security forces dearly in lives lost.

“The cost for the United States is our trust,” he said. U.S. forces are “leaving us to fight against the world’s most brutal force all on our own.”

Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.