A new Taliban military offensive is apparently aimed at toppling the Afghan government while the hard-line insurgents claim to be fighting to oust international forces.
On April 28, the Taliban announced the start of their annual spring offensive, promising to target military assaults on U.S.-led coalition and Afghan security forces.
A statement by the Taliban leadership council boasted that they now control more than half of the country, citing a U.S. report in February that said the Afghan government controls only 52 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts.
This year's offensive was named Operation Mansouri after the Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur who was killed last year in a U.S. drone strike.
"Mansouri operations will differ from previous ones in nature and will be conducted with a twin-tracked political and military approach," the Taliban leadership statement posted on the group’s official website on April 28 said.
The statement said that in the regions captured by the insurgents, “state-building will earnestly proceed and institutions will be erected to secure the social, security, and legal rights of the citizens.”
The statement didn't say whether this means the militants will apply their brand of justice, which when they ruled Afghanistan included public executions and chopping off the hands of convicted thieves.
The statement promised more violence: “These operations will involve conventional attacks, guerrilla warfare, complex martyrdom (suicide) attacks, insider attacks, and use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to achieve their objectives.”
Apparently foreshadowing the spring offensive, a Taliban attack earlier this week on an army base in northern Afghanistan was among the most devastating ever in the country, killing more than 140 Afghan soldiers.
While visiting Kabul this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged the challenges ahead.
"I say that we are under no illusions about the challenges associated with this mission,” he told journalists on April 24. “2017 is going to be another tough year for the valiant Afghan security forces and the international troops who have stood and will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan against terrorism and against those who seek to undermine the legitimate United Nations-recognized government of this nation."
Mattis and General John Nicholson, commander of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned Russia against supporting the Taliban.
"We continue to get reports of [Russian] assistance and, of course, we had the overt legitimacy lent to the Taliban by the Russians that really occurred during late last year (2016) beginning through this process they've been undertaking,” he said. “As [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Jim Mattis] stated, we support anybody who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but arming belligerents or legitimizing belligerents who perpetuate attacks like we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation."
The Taliban extended their territorial control by ramping up violence after the withdrawal of most NATO troops in late 2014. Afghan officials estimate their forces suffered more than 7,000 fatalities last year.
The escalating violence heralds even greater suffering for Afghan civilians. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 715 Afghan civilians died during the first quarter of this year while many more were wounded or maimed.
Compared with last year, the organization observed a 54 percent increase in conflict-related deaths of women and a 17 percent rise in child fatalities.
“With the so-called fighting season imminent, I appeal to all parties to take every measure possible to prevent unnecessary and unacceptable harm to Afghan civilians,” UNAMA chief, Tadamichi Yamamoto said on April 27.
Based on reporting by AP, AFP and VOA.