Meanwhile the Taliban is back stronger than ever in Afghanistan

Some 700 Taliban fighters seized a strategic district of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province after a week of fighting, officials said Friday. The militants targeted police units and beheaded at least 12 relatives of members of the security forces.

An estimated 700 Taliban fighters began their offensive about five days ago and at least 100 people have so far been killed, said provincial Deputy Governor Ahmadullah Ahmadi, adding that 15 people were beheaded by the militants.

The Ghazni provincial government lost contact with police in the province’s western district of Ajrestan, said Asadullah Safi, a deputy police chief of the area. He said the Taliban had attacked several villages over the past week and detonated a car bomb in front of an encampment where some 40 police were posted.

Safi said the militants captured and beheaded 12 relatives of members of the local and national security forces late on Thursday and burned down 60 homes.

The main highway linking Kabul to southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been making advances in recent months, passes through Ghazni province, which lies southwest of the capital.

“If there is no urgent help from the central government, the district will collapse,” Safi said.

Heavy fighting was continuing in Ajrestan on Friday.

The militants have been focusing on regaining important opium-growing areas, such as the southern province of Helmand, and areas where they have traditionally enjoyed support, such as Kunduz province in the north.

Control of Ghazni’s mountainous Ajrestan district, about 200 km (125 miles) from Kabul, could provide the Taliban with a launching point for attacks on two bordering provinces and along the crucial artery connecting the capital to Afghanistan’s second city of Kandahar in the south.

Long-term security concerns

The battle for Ajrestan illustrates the grave challenges facing Afghanistan’s new president and the security forces in holding territory as foreign combat troops prepare to leave at the end of the year.

No longer pinned down by US air cover, Taliban fighters are attacking Afghan military posts in large numbers with the aim of taking and holding ground.

The growing Taliban threat is likely to be the most urgent challenge for the new, US-brokered government of national unity between President-elect Ashraf Ghani and his former election rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

Provincial authorities have appealed for help from the central government in Kabul, where Ghani is in the process of taking over the presidency from Hamid Karzai.

“We have asked repeatedly for helicopters to evacuate the wounded, but so far nothing has been done,” Ahmadi said.

However, a regional spokesman for the Afghan army, Nazif Sultani, said on Friday that reinforcements had been sent to the district the previous day. He said he had no further information.

Months of deadlock over a disputed presidential election and uncertainty over whether any international troops will remain beyond a scheduled December 2014 troop withdrawal has undermined morale among the Afghan security forces.

About 12,000 NATO troops will remain in the country into next year on a training and support mission with Afghan forces.

“Peace with the Taliban requires a strong government. At the moment the Taliban think they can fight in every province and they believe they can overthrow the government,” said Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, Abdullah’s running mate and the leader of the Hazara ethnic minority.

“Without international support it will be hard to provide security … The example of Ajrestan district shows that without international commitment of troops, it will be difficult to handle the Taliban.”

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