According to three militant commanders, Taliban militants have shifted their strategy from targeting rural areas of Afghanistan to attacking provincial cities in response to increased US air strikes after the US announced the end of its longest war.
As foreign forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of conflict, the Taliban have stepped up their campaign to defeat the US-backed government.
Late last month, a regional US commander stated that the US had increased air strikes to counter growing Taliban attacks, which the Islamist group condemned.
Fighting has been especially intense inside Herat, near the western border with Iran, Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south-west, and Kandahar in the south.
The three Taliban commanders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters that they were concentrating their efforts on capturing Herat and Kandahar, with Lashkar Gah as a secondary goal.
“Mullah Yaqoob argued that when U.S. didn’t fulfil their commitment why should Taliban be made to follow the accord?” said one of the commanders, based in Kandahar, referring to the group’s military chief.
“Mullah Yaqoob has decided to capture Kandahar and Herat and now Helmand and then it could be Kunduz, Khost or any other province,” said the commander, saying the military leader’s arguments had won over the group’s political office.
A Taliban spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Taliban negotiator Suhail Shaheen told Reuters the group was continuing its policy of seizing control of rural areas and implementing Islamic Sharia there, rather than focusing on cities.
The Taliban, who ruled with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001, had previously stated that they would concentrate their efforts on lucrative border crossings and large rural areas, despite the fact that they have encircled and at times entered provincial capitals.
Since April, when President Joe Biden announced that troops would be withdrawn by September and officials warned that peace talks in Doha were failing to make substantive progress, the group has been waging a massive nationwide offensive.
In recent weeks, sustained attacks on Herat, Kandahar, and Lashkar Gar have strained Afghan special forces and killed dozens of civilians.
FIGHTING ‘NOT LIMITED TO PERIPHERIES’
“The operations in Kandahar and Herat are very much important to us and our priority is to capture the two crucial airports or airbases in Kandahar and Herat,” the Taliban commander in Kandahar said.
Officials and experts said they saw signs of a change in strategy last month.
“Taliban are pushing against the provincial capitals … not just to exert pressure but to capture them,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia analyst from Stanford University.
“The main evidence is the extent of their breach of these cities. Fighting is not limited to the peripheries any more. This switch in Taliban strategy has been formalised after Eid, though Taliban forces were putting serious pressure on Kandahar even before Eid.”
The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha was celebrated last month.
Kandahar and Herat are the second- and third-largest cities of Afghanistan by population. Experts said their loss would be a major political blow to the government and could potentially trigger major realignments in favour of the Taliban.
“Capture of Kandahar means a lot to the Taliban. It was their capital and occupying the city is great morale boost for the Taliban… This is something they cherish and for Kandahar, Taliban can risk international ire,” said an Asian diplomatic source closely following the Taliban.
A Western security official said: “The fact they are attacking (cities) is a sharp reaction to air support offered by the U.S. … The Taliban have proven that now they will not just stop with controlling trading points.”
It is unclear whether US airstrikes will continue after foreign forces have withdrawn.
Requests for comment were not immediately responded to by a spokesperson for US forces in Afghanistan or the US embassy.
Experts and officials agree that, for the time being, a military takeover of Kabul would be much more difficult for the Taliban than a takeover of provincial capitals, but the group could increase bombings and attacks to undermine security and public morale.
On Tuesday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on the acting defence minister’s residence and threatened more violence.