Taliban's Fighting Season A Major Test Of Afghan Forces

The Taliban are steadily increasing their attacks since launching their annual spring offensive a month ago, and this fighting season is particularly critical. It's a test of the Afghan forces, who in another month, are supposed to be leading 100 percent of security operations in Afghanistan. So far, there's guarded optimism they can keep the militants in check.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This past Friday in Afghanistan, a handful of Taliban militants paralyzed Kabul during an eight-hour standoff with Afghan security forces. This spring, the Taliban's attacks have been intensifying, and this year's fighting season is a major test of Afghan government forces. One month from now, they're supposed to be leading all security operations in the country, as NPR's Sean Carberry reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: After a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle on a residential street in Kabul, several militants took up positions in different houses and fired relentlessly on the compound of the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. Ten terrified staff were trapped inside the compound for two hours until Afghan police were able to rescue them. Explosions and gunfire rang out late into the night when Afghan forces finally killed the last militants.

SEDIQ SEDIQQI: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Government spokesman Sediq Sediqqi praised the Afghan forces. But while the casualty count was relatively small, the attack had a big impact.

GENERAL ABDUL HADI KHALID: These psychological attacks, it damages morale of people, especially city people.

CARBERRY: General Abdul Hadi Khalid is a former deputy minister. He says attacks like this aren't designed to capture the city so much as undermine the people's confidence in the Afghan government and the security forces.

GENERAL AFZAL RAHID: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: General Afzal Rahid(ph) is the head of operations in Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense. He says it's clear that the Taliban are looking to test and intimidate the Afghan forces, which are largely operating on their own now.

RAHID: (Through translator) I can say that about 20 to 30 percent Taliban activities increased compared to last year.

CARBERRY: Afghan Security Forces, or ANSF, are suffering hundreds of casualties a month now, far more than NATO forces suffered at the peak of their presence here. U.S. Army Colonel Brian Cook says NATO sees some changes in Taliban tactics this season.

COLONEL BRIAN COOK: Direct fire is up considerably, and IEDs are slightly down.

CARBERRY: General Rahid says there have been nearly 200 direct attacks on Afghan outposts this season. The most dramatic took place last week in the volatile Helmand province.

RAHID: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: Three hundred militants, including foreigners, launched attacks on several Afghan police outposts, says Rahid. The fighting extended over two days. Afghan police were overrun, but Colonel Cook says the ANSF regrouped and repelled the militants.

COOK: Literally everywhere where the ANSF has been punched, they've stood back on their feet and gotten back to the checkpoints and reset their lines.

CARBERRY: Cook says Afghan forces must continue to respond that way to prevent the Taliban from gaining ground and intimidating the public. General Khalid says the ANSF response in Helmand was a good sign, but there are still some worrying gaps.

KHALID: Our forces need more equipment, more support, especially air support.

CARBERRY: He says in the south and east where violence is traditionally focused, the ANSF have enough trained forces. But the Taliban appear to be stepping up attacks in the more stable north and west, where NATO forces have largely withdrawn.

KHALID: There, our forces, they don't have enough quantity and quality.

CARBERRY: And the latest attack in Kabul - the fourth fatal attack in the city this year - has some hoping NATO troops will stick around.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: While cleaning up debris from their blast-damaged homes, a group of men say that even though most of the Afghan police were doing a good job, they wish the Afghans were as disciplined as the NATO troops who came to provide support fire as the Afghans battled the militants. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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