Taliban militants line up to join the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program, two years ago in Kandahar. Despite the group’s loss of some high-level fighters, attacks in Afghanistan are likely to continue. (Reuters)

In the latest in a series of dramatic Taliban attacks across Afghanistan, a team of seven heavily armed fighters staged a bold raid on NATO’s operational headquarters at the Kabul airport Monday before being fought off and killed by Afghan security forces.

The incident served as an example of what coalition and Afghan military officials say is the Taliban’s renewed determination to carry out nationwide attacks well after their annual spring offensive, in a bid to disrupt plans for next year’s national elections and expose Afghan security forces as incapable of defending the country ahead of the withdrawal of most NATO troops by the end of 2014.

But the raid’s failure also highlighted the Taliban’s inability to represent a major threat to the Afghan state, according to military officials. They say that the insurgents control little populated territory in few regions and have not been able to expand that sway and that Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces are increasingly able to defeat them.

In a statement issued a week ago, a NATO coalition spokesman, Col. Thomas W. Collins, said the Taliban “simply do not have the manpower, capability or coherence in command and control to be considered a strategic threat.”

Assessing the potency of the shifting and elusive organization is difficult, however. Afghan and coalition military officials acknowledge that they do not know how large the Taliban’s fighting force is, but analysts say it is easily able to recruit foot soldiers and fund itself through extortion. And although Afghan security forces have been able to combat Taliban attacks in urban areas, they are far more vulnerable in rural regions, where they are losing air backup and other international support.

As the Afghan military attempts to prove its own strength without American combat support, the Tangi Valley appeared to be the perfect mission — a chance to do what the U.S. military could not. (Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post)

Several Afghan officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, agree that the insurgents probably cannot defeat the much larger government forces. But the officials said that the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s future is not the strength of the insurgency but the weakness and corruption of the government, which has caused some Afghans to turn to the Taliban for security and justice.

“We don’t fear the enemy. We don’t need better equipment and technology, because those are things they don’t have. What we need is a stronger and better government,” one Afghan military official said. “People are dissatisfied with all the corruption, and there are splits even among our officers. We can’t afford to split into factions. This is very worrisome.”

‘Fighting to free our country’

In recent weeks, unusually ambitious insurgent attacks have stunned residents and international workers in Afghanistan. One assault team occupied a building in downtown Kabul used by an international refugee agency, setting off a five-hour gun battle. Another breached a government compound in Panjshir province, considered one of the safest areas in the country.

In an especially surprising incident, a suicide and commando squad attacked a provincial office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a group that observes a strict neutrality in conflicts, visits detainees on both sides and has helped maintain communication between imprisoned Afghan insurgents and their families. No group asserted responsibility for that attack, but Afghan security sources said the tactics were similar to those often used by the Taliban.

“We were really shocked,” said Robin Waudo, a spokesman for the ICRC, which has worked in Afghanistan since 1979. “We will have to change the way we do things now.”

The attacks have been part of a sustained pattern this spring in which police posts, government centers, coalition convoys, marketplaces and other sites have been targeted. Taliban spokesmen are portraying the offensive as a go-for-broke military effort, declaring that they have lost interest in long-stalled peace talks with the Afghan government.

“We are getting stronger and spreading our attacks because our country has been occupied,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said in a recent statement. “We will target foreigners and Afghans in their bases, in highways or airports, cities or rural areas. We are fighting to free our country and will continue to do so until the enemy has been defeated militarily and politically.”

Insurgent attacks and land mines have taken a heavy toll on Afghan security forces this spring. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of international troops in Afghanistan, said last week that Afghan security forces had lost more 200 troops in just the two preceding weeks.

Afghan officials, however, assert that the army, police and other national defense forces, totaling 350,000, are ready to take full control of national security after the official handover from NATO leadership this month.

“The Taliban think that the departure of the coalition forces means they can change the situation, but they’re wrong,” Lt. Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said in an interview. In addition to Monday’s airport raid, he said, Afghan forces repelled three major Taliban attacks this spring and are taking the lead in 90 percent of military operations.

Despite the upsurge in attacks, Afghan and U.S. officials said that the Taliban has not expanded its territorial control and that the group’s higher-ranking leadership has been thinned out on the battlefield under military pressure. They said that although the insurgents are able to replace fallen fighters, the age and experience of mid-level commanders has steadily decreased.

Afghan security officials said Taliban forces remain concentrated in a dozen eastern and southern provinces where they have always been strongest, mainly a ­Pashtun-dominated belt along the Pakistan border stretching from Kunar and Nurestan provinces in the north down through Wardak, Khost and Ghazni and further south to Paktika and Kandahar.

Within these provinces, they said, the insurgency is strong in some districts and often is invisible by day but active at night. Its areas of control regularly shift, and it has fought see-sawing battles with coalition and Afghan troops over the same rural districts for several years. But the Afghan officials said the Taliban has not overrun any new districts this year.

Taliban’s broader goals

Afghanistan has scheduled presidential elections in April. The previous presidential election was in 2009, and insurgent threats and influence prevented voting in some ethnic Pashtun areas. A credible election with significant turnout in all regions is considered crucial for the country’s stability.

“Our strategy is to isolate the people from the insurgents, create highway security and overwhelm any movements,” said Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman. “They will try to make the elections insecure, but we are ready to deal with them.”

Afghan officials said, however, that they were alarmed by new reports of “external” insurgents entering the country, including tribal militants from Pakistan and Islamist fighters from Chechnya and elsewhere.

Siddiq Siddiqi, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said last week that the government had “information that there are thousands of Pakistani Taliban moving here, trying to thwart the security transition and impede the election. We won’t let them.”

Experts said the organization’s far-flung and high-profile attacks have several purposes: to rattle the public as the deadline for the NATO troop withdrawal nears, to maintain a high profile at a relatively little cost and to stake out a position of national strength so it can enter into international peace negotiations rather than dealing only with the Afghan government.

“The Taliban want to show the people and the international community that they are not only a Pashtun ethnic group,” said analyst Waheed Mojdah, who maintains contact with some Taliban leaders. “They want to show they have enough local support to attack anywhere. If they are going to be in talks, they want to deal with external countries and to be treated as a national group.”

But Mojdah said it would be a mistake to judge Taliban success or failure in terms of winning battles or gaining power. He said that many insurgents are products of religious seminaries and that their primary motive is to please God.

“There are hundreds and thousands of them on the list, waiting to become martyrs and blow themselves up,” he said.