KABUL — In the wake of its pullout from the key northern city of Kunduz, the Taliban is setting its sights on other provincial centers, triggering fears that more cities could fall as the insurgent group makes a tactical shift by targeting urban areas as much as rural districts.
The Taliban is focusing on two provincial centers in the south, Qalat and Ghazni, according to government officials and residents in those cities. Clashes have erupted in recent days in areas surrounding Ghazni, capital of the province of the same name, and Qalat, capital of Zabul province.
In the city of Ghazni, about 75 miles southwest of Kabul, Taliban fighters launched a multi-pronged offensive early Tuesday, getting as close as three miles from the city limits before they were repelled by Afghan forces.
“Huge numbers of Taliban started attacking the city from three directions,” said Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, the province’s deputy governor. “But they were pushed back by the brave Afghan forces.”
Nevertheless, shops and schools shut down, and streets were deserted. Scores of residents fled toward Kabul, fearing a repeat of what happened in Kunduz.
The Taliban’s capture of the northeastern city two weeks ago was a devastating blow to Afghan security forces and their U.S. backers. It exposed the weaknesses of the Afghan army, prompting U.S. forces to launch airstrikes in the face of stiff Taliban resistance.
But even the air power had limits, as evidenced by a U.S. strike that devastated a trauma hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 22 people. On Wednesday, the aid group said nine patients remain unaccounted for. Two missing staff members, it said, are presumed dead.
During their takeover of Kunduz, Taliban fighters went from house to house killing civilians and abducting and raping women, according to human rights activists. The group waged a campaign against female activists, including a “hit list” to track them down systematically, as part of what the watchdog group Amnesty International called “a reign of terror.”
On Tuesday, the Taliban announced its withdrawal from the city, saying it had accomplished its objectives of freeing comrades from the local prison and seizing large amounts of ammunition from security forces. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a phone interview Wednesday that the assault was also intended to “show we can strike rural and urban areas.”
“We are fully prepared to carry out attacks everywhere needed,” he added.
The Taliban’s focus on urban areas, analysts say, is being driven by an increase in the number of foreign militants in Afghanistan. A large number entered from neighboring Pakistan to escape an ongoing military offensive along the border.
The new strategy is also seen as a way for the Taliban’s new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, to exert authority over the group, which has been fragmented by power struggles after the revelation this summer that Mohammad Omar, the reclusive Taliban supreme leader, died more than two years ago.
“By shifting the war from villages to the cities, the Taliban’s new leader wants to show the group’s field commanders that he is a strong and efficient leader,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a Kabul-based military analyst. “By attacking the political centers, the Taliban wants to worry Afghans and the international countries who are involved in Afghanistan.”
On Wednesday, a member of parliament from Ghazni claimed on television that Mansour had spent five nights in the province overseeing the Taliban’s preparations for an assault on the provincial capital. The lawmaker, Mohammad Arif Rahmani, offered no evidence to back up his claim.
What is clear is that the Taliban has long coveted Ghazni, once a major stronghold of the group. The city is strategically nestled along the main commercial highway linking Kabul and Kandahar. Last month, insurgents stormed its main prison in a commando-style attack, freeing several hundred battle-hardened militants.
And for the past two days, insurgents have built checkpoints on the main highway, in effect blocking the flow of traffic, including potential reinforcements for Afghan security forces.
In Zabul province, about 150 miles southwest of Kabul, the insurgents appear to be planning an offensive against Qalat.
“For the past few days, we have witnessed the Taliban massing forces from other provinces for an operation on Qalat,” said Hamidullah Tokhi, a lawmaker from the province. “They have planted mines in various parts of the main road and established sentry points.”
Shortly after the fall of Kunduz, the Taliban staged an attack on Pol-e Khomri, the capital of northern Baghlan province. The group was repelled by security forces, but Taliban fighters remain positioned less than a mile north of the city, said Abdul Jabar Purdeli, the provincial police chief.
“Their focus was on the city, and it still is now,” he said. “They want to capture the cities, and this has been their goal in the north.”
In the past two weeks, the Taliban has also tried to overrun Meymaneh, capital of Faryab province, and Faizabad, capital of Badakhshan province. In both cases, Afghan forces fended off the militants.
“The Taliban knows they can’t control the cities for a long time,” said Mohammad Hashem Ortaq, a lawmaker from Faryab. “What they want by seizing cities is to attract the media’s attention and negatively affect people’s morale.”
He noted that the Taliban controls areas less than four miles from Meymaneh.
Meanwhile, insurgents overran two checkpoints in southern Helmand province and killed 29 border police officers, a provincial official said, according to the Associated Press.
Bashir Ahmad Shaki said Wednesday that the officers were killed after a three-day battle, after reinforcements failed to arrive.
Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.