In the rugged terrain of the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, the fight against Kabul has become a war for control of key stretches of main roads and highways as the insurgents use a new tactic to gain ground.
First they storm a checkpoint, kill all the policemen, seize their weapons and equipment and effectively cut off the main road to a remote village. They raise the white Taliban flag and plant roadside bombs to prevent cars from coming through the checkpoint. Any vehicle that attempts to pass through is either blown up or attacked, residents and local leaders say.
Then they wait. Faced with shortages of basic food items and price hikes as their supplies dwindle, the villagers are eventually forced to abandon their homes and to move to a place where they can afford to eat and live. Most sneak out on foot or on donkeys through backroads and mountain paths, leaving many of their belongings behind.
Though the new tactic may be obviously simple, it has helped the Taliban gain ground albeit at a slower pace than a deadly, surprise raid on an entire village.
The Taliban have been waging war against the Kabul government since 2001, when their regime was overthrown in the US-led invasion. Since the international combat troops pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014, leaving behind only a largely training and advising contingent, the insurgency has intensified as Afghan forces struggle to take the lead in the battle.
The Taliban are now refocusing their attention mostly on the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan, US and Afghan military officials say, although the insurgents have also struck elsewhere, such as the northern Kunduz province where they briefly overran and held the provincial capital for a few days last fall.
The results have been daunting the United Nations says 3,545 Afghan civilians were killed and 7,457 wounded in the war in 2015, most of them by the Taliban.
In the south, one of the worst hit areas is Uruzgan province where the Taliban have been putting pressure in recent weeks on Afghan forces around the provincial capital of Tirin Kot, said the US military spokesman in Kabul, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland.
“The Taliban’s main focus in the south is now Uruzgan” and US forces have been providing assistance and air support as needed, Cleveland said.
The director of Uruzgan’s provincial council, Abdul Hakeem Khadimzai, described the situation there as the “worst in 15 years.” In May alone, he said, “around 200 security forces were killed and more than 300 were wounded” in Uruzgan.
The figures are an estimate but Khadimzai insisted that if he were to “include civilians, then they would be doubled.”
The numbers could not be independently verified as the Afghan government does not release military and police casualty figures.