Afghan children displaced by ongoing fighting against Taliban militants play inside a makeshift camp in Kunduz province, where some of the worst fighting has happened. (Nasir Waqif/AFP/Getty Images)

Taliban militants are expanding their reach into new areas of Afghanistan, straining security forces who are locked in some of the bloodiest battles of the 13-year-old insurgency, provincial and local law-enforcement officials said.

In the first spring fighting season since the U.S.-led coalition ended combat operations in Afghanistan, heavy clashes are being reported in at least 10 Afghan provinces. The provinces are in every corner of the country, creating widespread unease about whether the Afghan government and army can repel the threat.

“This is the worst fighting season in a decade,” said Attiqullah Amerkhil, a Kabul-based political and military analyst. “There is now fighting in every part of the country.”

Such dire assessments have become something of an annual tradition here, where it’s difficult for analysts and journalists to safely obtain information from rural areas of the country. But coalition statistics and interviews with nearly two dozen provincial officials suggest that security is indeed worsening in many areas of the country.

Since January, Afghan soldiers have experienced 70 percent more casualties than in the same period last year, according to Col. Brian Tribus, director of public affairs for the U.S.-led coalition in
Afghanistan. Civilian casualties have increased 10 percent over that same period.

Members of the Afghan National Army check cars on a road near Kabul, Afghanistan. According to local media reports fighters allegedly from the Taliban kidnapped some forty passengers in the Syed Karam district of Paktia province Saturday. (Jawad Jalali/EPA)

The violence can be partially attributed to an expanding battlefield that is testing the 174,000-man army’s ability to respond. The ongoing Pakistani military operation has driven scores of militants across the border in search of new safe havens.

That has created a tightening geographic ring of chaos around the Afghan capital, presenting a major challenge for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the country’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah.

“The Taliban is taking advantage of a weak government, and there is a lack of coordination between Afghan forces, so they just keep attacking more districts,” said Mohammad Asif
Afghan, a local police commander in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan.

In Ghowr province in central Afghanistan, most residents of two major districts fled their homes this week because of the fighting, according to Raqeeba Naeel, who represents the province in parliament.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Taliban abducted 30 motorists, including women and children, from highways in Paktika province near the eastern border with Pakistan, according to local police. In a statement, the Taliban confirmed the abductions, saying it was looking for government officials.

Some of the worst violence is happening in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, where the army rushed reinforcements to keep control of the provincial capital. But local officials say the situation remains tense.

“Residents are terrified, and everyone is concerned that the Taliban may attack this city again,” said Mohammad Yousuf Ayubi, the head of the provincial council, who added militants still control many surrounding districts.

On Friday, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported it has received 204 “war-wounded” at its trauma center in Kunduz since mid-April. That is more than double the number of patients it treated because of fighting last year.

“The surgeons are dealing with severe abdominal and chest injuries, with many patients requiring a series of complex surgical interventions, said Laurent Gabriel, the MSF coordinator at the trauma center, who noted that one-fourth of the “war-wounded” patients have been women or children.

Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at the Kabul-based Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, also blamed the Ghani government for the worsening violence. Instead of preparing his government and army for a tough spring season, Azamy said Ghani was too focused this spring on trying to launch peace talks with the Taliban.

“The Taliban is intensifying its attacks, and this is the greatest threat that Afghanistan faces, and that is largely because the Afghan government was not prepared for this,” Azamy said. “It was just way too optimistic about a peace process.”

Azamy noted that Ghani and Abdullah still haven’t named a defense minister and attorney general. Thirty of 34 Afghan provinces still lack a permanent district governor or police chief.

“In all these provinces, except a few, you have acting people who are not seriously committed to the job,” Azamy said.

During a meeting with Western journalists one week ago, Ghani acknowledged that Afghanistan will “face a difficult year.”

“But at the end of it, I think we are going to come out much stronger,” the president said.

Ghani appears to be succeeding in getting Pakistani leaders to play a more active role in trying to control the flow of fighters and ammunition across the border.

After a visit to Kabul on Tuesday, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Pakistan now considers the Afghan Taliban to be the “enemy,” a surprisingly strong statement, given Pakistan’s past alliance with the group.

Generals from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States met Wednesday in Kabul to discuss how they can better coordinate operations.

The Afghan army continues to expand its capabilities, U.S. military officials said.

In late April, as part of a broader effort to go on the offensive in traditional Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, the Afghan army’s 203rd Corps mounted a 22-day slog through the mountains in the Nawa district of Ghazni province.

Afghan troops killed or wounded 250 Taliban fighters, dismantled 700 bombs and seized 35,000 tons of explosives. When the operation ended earlier this month, Afghan forces controlled the district for the first time in at least a decade, said overseeing Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali.

But Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, the deputy governor of Ghazni province, said the Afghan army would have to permanently station 1,000 soldiers in Nawa to keep the Taliban from returning. Some provincial officials doubt the 148,000-member Afghan police force can stand up to the militants.

Yaftali, however, isn’t sure his troops will remain in large numbers.

“Ideally, when it comes to the security of the district . . . the Afghan government should get involved,” Yaftali said when asked about Ghazni’s request. “So, no comment.”

Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.

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