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Afghan Soldiers Gird for Taliban to Attack Cities After the U.S. Leaves #englishheadline

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ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan—The Taliban are encircling Afghan police and army positions and encroaching on government-held territory, positioning themselves for large-scale offensives against major population centers while waiting for the last American troops to depart Afghanistan.

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The insurgents are pushing their advantage on the battlefield ahead of a full U.S. exit, even as they continue peace talks with the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar. President

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Biden

has said the withdrawal would be completed by Sept. 11. Other American officials indicate the remaining U.S. presence—and the vital air support they provide Afghan government forces—will be gone much sooner, maybe as early as next month.

In the ebb and flow of the Afghan war, government troops sometimes still manage to retake areas like Arghandab, a fertile valley on the western edge of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city. Taliban fighters fled parts of Arghandab in early April, after strikes from U.S. war planes made the difference following months of intense ground fighting.

But with air support ending within weeks, government forces will lose a pivotal edge in the conflict.

An Afghan Army soldier stood guard last month in Kandahar province, near the frontline with the Taliban.

Saeed Ahmad,

a 25-year-old policeman in Arghandab, said his unit won’t hold out for long without airpower or a significant influx of heavy weaponry. “In this situation, we won’t be able to protect Kandahar,” he said.

The top U.S. envoy for Afghanistan,

Zalmay Khalilzad,

is due to arrive in Doha this week after meeting Afghan President

Ashraf Ghani

in Kabul on Sunday. He is seeking to reinvigorate the peace process, which has been dormant since Mr. Biden announced that the U.S. would withdraw all its remaining troops unconditionally, removing the Kabul government’s main leverage in the talks.

The escalating fighting on the ground across Afghanistan stands in stark contrast to the Taliban’s earlier pledges in Doha. As part of an agreement with the Trump administration in Feb. 2020, which triggered the unfolding American troop withdrawal, the Taliban promised they would reduce violence significantly.

Afghan security forces have assumed growing responsibility for the war in recent years, including from bases and outposts in Kandahar province.

Since then, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have reported a “historic increase” in enemy-initiated attacks, according to a May report by the Pentagon’s inspector-general: The period from July 2020 to March 2021 saw the highest number of attacks since early 2015, with roughly 130 attacks per day.

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, cited in the report, “the Taliban is very likely preparing for large-scale offensives against Afghan population centers and government forces.” The Taliban say the U.S. is in breach of its Doha commitment to withdraw all forces by May 1.

The Taliban in the past week seized eight districts in four different regions of Afghanistan, according to the Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, which tracks the Afghan war through publicly available information. The districts included Qaysar in Faryab province where a Taliban car bomb killed the police chief and 23 security personnel.

The militants are currently poised on the edge of more than a half-dozen provincial capitals, including Kandahar, Lashkar Gah in nearby Helmand, and the capitals of Laghman, Ghazni, Baghlan, Farah, Kunduz and Zabul.

Capt.

Nasser Khaled,

who commands a unit of special forces from the Afghan Army’s Task Force 444, said the insurgents ramped up fighting after last year’s deal with the U.S. in order to boost their negotiating position in Doha by capturing more areas, including provincial capitals. “They are trying to move forward, but we won’t let them,” he said.

The Taliban blew up a bridge connecting Arghandab to the provincial capital of Kandahar to try to prevent Afghan forces from retaking the area.



Photo:

Sune Engel Rasmussen/The Wall Street Journal

To consolidate their grip on areas under their control, the Taliban often destroy infrastructure to impede access. In Arghandab, the insurgents blew up a bridge connecting the district to the road into Kandahar, forcing traders and civilian travellers to cross a shallow river instead.

When Afghan forces manage to push back the Taliban, they often find a booby-trapped wasteland that prevents further advances and ties up government resources.

On a recent afternoon,

Ahmad Sharif

entered an abandoned house in the Arghandab district center, and started digging the ground with his bare hands, exposing a yellow motor oil can—an improvised explosive device planted by the Taliban when they fled weeks earlier. Mr. Sharif, a 23-year-old shopkeeper who had just joined the Afghan police force, removed the switch and fuse from the body of the mine in 30 seconds and carried the remains back to the base.

Afghan police officer Ahmad Sharif cleared an improvised explosive device from a house in Arghandab.



Photo:

Sune Engel Rasmussen/The Wall Street Journal

Days earlier, Mr. Sharif had stood behind a fellow policeman, also a shopkeeper until recently, when the man went into a newly-seized building and stepped on a mine. The explosion took off both of the policeman’s legs and an arm.

“Every home in the village has three of four dead or injured family members,” Mr. Sharif said. “After the Taliban left, when I returned home and found my house full of mines, I went to the police commander and said I wanted to help protect the village.”

From his dusty roadside shop in Arghandab, 16-year-old

Hamidullah Zahir

pointed to two rusty oil cans in a grove of pomegranate trees underneath a small bridge: improvised explosive devices planted by the Taliban, which the teenager had dismantled days earlier. “I have seen people do this so many times,” Hamidullah said, as an explanation for how he had learned to defuse bombs. Residents in Arghandab said they cleared the area of about 100 mines since U.S. airstrikes drove out the Taliban.

Since 2014, Afghan security forces have assumed growing responsibility for the war, and Afghan officials routinely point out that national forces now conduct at least 95% of the fighting against the Taliban. However, most of that fighting is defensive, as government forces rarely have the capacity to clear the Taliban from areas they already occupy without the assistance of a limited number of Afghan special forces. U.S. airstrikes have remained decisive in preventing the fall of several cities and towns.

The Afghan military flies its own warplanes and Russian-made helicopters, but those are nowhere near as potent as the Apaches and F-35s deployed by the U.S. military.

Afghan forces launched mortars at Taliban positions in Kandahar province.

At an Afghan army base in Panjwai, another district of Kandahar province, a unit of Afghan special-forces soldiers who had arrived a month earlier were launching mortars at what they said were Taliban hideouts in the nearby mountains, checking for impact on a satellite screen. By dialing in coordinates, they managed to hit a car they said was carrying Taliban militants.

“We have good forces on the ground, and an air force, as you can see,” said Capt. Khaled, as an American-made Cessna 208 armed with Hellfire missiles traversed the sky. The plane, part of the Afghan Air Force and known as the Eliminator, is a militarized version of an aircraft used by, among others, the Federal Bureau of Investigation to fly surveillance in the U.S.

Meanwhile, another unit was combing through the fields outside the Panjwai base on its way to clear the Taliban-held village of Khanjapak. They moved slowly through the sun-scorched terrain, which was littered with mines. The unit had four bomb experts, two of whom detected mines that the other two could defuse. Taliban snipers deliberately took aim at the four bomb specialists, and if one got hit, the whole operation had to stop, Capt. Khaled said.

‘Every home in the village has three of four dead or injured family members,’ Afghan police officer Ahmad Sharif said of the impact of improvised explosive devices.



Photo:

Sune Engel Rasmussen/The Wall Street Journal

The U.S.-led Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan plans to provide the Afghan government the equivalent of up to $852.5 million to support the Defense Ministry from Dec. 2020 to Dec. 2021, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

But Afghan security forces are rife with corruption and many service members complain they are underpaid and outgunned. Desertions have picked up in recent weeks.

In Arghandab, Mr. Sharif, the newly minted police officer, showed off weapons his unit had found after the Taliban fled town: a vest full of ammunition, hand grenades, rocket launchers.

“We don’t have this stuff here at the checkpoint,” he said.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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