The Taliban Almost Took Over An Afghan City, Proving That It’s Far From ‘Losing Ground’

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

Taliban insurgents assaulted a provincial capital in Western Afghanistan on Tuesday, engaging Afghan troops and U.S. commandos is a day-long assault before leaving the city unopposed early Wednesday.

The Taliban fighters briefly captured three sections of Farah City, an urban center of about 50,000 people in the remote province of the same name. After 24 hours of intense fighting, the combined force of Afghan and American troops managed to repel the attack, and officials hailed the battle as a victory for the Afghan government.

Some observers — both local and international — say the latest battle for control of Farah City illustrates an uncomfortable reality throughout much of Afghanistan: the Taliban insurgency is alive and well and shows no sign of weakening any time soon.

“The Taliban assault on Farah City should put to rest any claims by the US military that the Taliban is losing ground in Afghanistan,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote in the think tank’s Long War Journal on Tuesday.

Roggio was alluding to a May 3 Pentagon press conference, where Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana White said the Taliban has become “desperate” because it is “losing ground” to Afghan government security forces. White went on to say that “things are moving in the right direction” due to the U.S. military’s mini-surge and increased tempo of airstrikes over the past year.

Roggio disputes the Pentagon’s rosy outlook. He noted that the Taliban currently controls or contests nearly 59 percent of the Afghanistan’s 407 districts, according to tracking by the Long War Journal. Along with Farah City, several provincial capitals remain directly threatened by the Taliban, including Gazni City, Kunduz City, Lashkar Gah, and Tarin Kot.

The stubborn Taliban insurgency is countered by an Afghan security force that continues to dwindle despite more than a decade of U.S. training and direct investment totaling nearly $80 billion. There were about 36,000 fewer Afghan National Defense and Security Forces as of Jan. 31 than there were at the same date in 2017, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) latest quarterly report to Congress. (RELATED: Afghanistan Security Forces Shrinking As Insurgents Mount Devastating Urban Attacks)

The situation in Farah is a microcosm of the nationwide Taliban insurgency. It is not potent enough to capture and hold major urban areas, but it can attack Afghan government forces at will and then melt into the surrounding countryside. Farah itself has come under Taliban attack several times in recent years — it nearly fell to a particularly ferocious assault in October 2016.

Just as worrisome from the U.S. military’s perspective is that Afghan security forces aren’t capable of beating back the Taliban attacks without help from American troops and air power. In Tuesday’s assault on Farah City, heavily armed Taliban fighters, rolling in captured Afghan army Humvees and police pickup trucks, managed to capture a police district building and storm an intelligence center, the Long War Journal reported, citing local media reports.

The dire situation forced U.S. military commanders to send a team of American special forces commandos, backed by armed drones and A-10 ground attack jets, to Farah to assist the Afghan troops. Afghan government forces eventually regained control of the city, killing dozens of Taliban fighters in the process, but some local residents said the battle proved the Taliban can come and go as it pleases.

“The Taliban managed to leave the city without a single shot being fired, and the night was calm,” The New York Times quoted Farah resident Abdullah Khan as saying. “It shows the utmost incompetence of our forces. The Taliban were wandering the Farah city streets openly without fear as if they had lived there a long time, making jokes with their friends and telling citizens to stay calm and not worry.”

U.S. military officials have downplayed the strength of the Taliban insurgency by highlighting the fact that it has not been able to capture any provincial capitals, save for Kunduz City in brief periods in 2015 and 2016. Taliban offensives in rural areas “represent a significant lowering of ambition after their failure to take any provincial capitals in 2017,” U.S. Navy Captain Tom Gresback, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support coalition, said in March, according to Reuters.

The Pentagon is attributing to the Taliban a strategic objective it has never claimed, Roggio said. Instead, the group has publicly stated its strategy is to take control of remote areas in order to exert pressure on population centers, including provincial capitals.

The latest battle in Farah City demonstrates the “importance of the Taliban’s strategy to control rural areas, and the failure of the US military to properly acknowledge that threat,” Roggio wrote.

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