The deadly violence, unleashed at a time when the Afghan government has made a considerable effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, is taking place against the backdrop of a major voter registration process with parliamentary and district council elections scheduled for October.
‘The Battle of the Trench’
The Taliban has named its spring offensive al-Khandaq, a reference to a seventh century battle— the month-long siege of Medina by Arab and Jewish tribes known as Gazhwat-al- Khandaq, in which the Prophet Muhammad’s forces resisted and eventually prevailed.
The Taliban maintains that it is fighting an ongoing “jihad against the Afghan and its allied forces is a holy obligation […] and only recourse for re-establishing an Islamic system and independence” (Ariana News, April 12, 2016). However, the use of such a significant historical reference to legitimize violence and bloodshed in the name of Islam has been heavily criticized by Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, which said the Taliban’s war was against innocent Afghan people and Muslims in general, in contrast to the Prophet Muhammad who fought against infidels or non-believers (Bakhtar News [Kabul], May 9).
The Taliban’s spring offensives have been going effectively since 2006, using different historical Islamic battles and the names of renowned jihadist commanders, including Operation Khalid bin Waleed (in April 2013), Operation Khaibar (May 2014), Operation Omari (April 2016) and Operation Mansouri (April 2017). They are primarily targeted at the U.S. and foreign troops, defense contractors and their existing support systems and infrastructure, such as military airbases, police outposts and foreign embassies.
Prior to the start of Operation al-Khandaq, on March 21, the Afghan military launched a pre-emptive strike, named Nasrat (meaning “victory” in Arabic), battling the Taliban and militants from Islamic State-Khorsan (IS-K), as well as a host of other violent groups, across the country and in the regions bordering Pakistan. Nonetheless, the wave of violence over the last few weeks has caught the government security apparatus off guard.
The first fortnight of the Taliban’s offensive has already resulted in hundreds of fatalities on both sides. Despite the deaths, the Taliban remains boastful of its achievements on the ground. It claims complete success in Kunduz, Badakhshan, Zabul, Ghazni and Paktika provinces, while in other provinces such as in Helmand, Farah, Faryab, Kandahar, Badghis and Logar the clashes continue to favor the Taliban militants (Alemarah, May 8). Indeed, the Taliban’s braggadocio has some substance, given the acknowledgement by Tariq Shah Bahrami, the Afghan defense minster, of the high number of losses inflicted on the Afghan security forces (Pajhwok, May 7).
As per the data shared by the minister on May 7, at the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly, a total 252 security personnel, including army and police, and 63 civilians have been killed, with violence continuing in several districts. Bahrami also informed the house that at least 799 Taliban militants were killed and about 500 injured during the battles that raged across the country. On May 14, Afghan defense ministry sources updated the death toll of troops to 300, but vehemently denied the larger fatality figures claimed by the media (Afghanistan Times, May 14).
While heavy fighting is continuing in at least in 12 provinces across Afghanistan, it is mostly concentrated in Zabul province (southern Afghanistan), in Farah province (western Afghanistan), Baghlan and Faryab province (both in northern Afghanistan). On May 8, Taliban militants claimed victory in Tala Wa Bafrak district in Baghlan, after government forces retreated after days of fighting. The Taliban also claimed to have captured the city of Farah, capital of the western province of Farah, and two districts of central Ghazni province in mid-May 2018 (Tolo News, May 16).
At the time of writing, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, has claimed via Twitter that Taliban militants had withdrawn from the besieged provincial headquarters in Farah after killing 63 security force personnel and stealing military equipment.  The claim is unverified, but earlier reports suggest that fighting in Farah had been fierce and that Taliban forces had managed to destroy parts of the headquarters of the National Directorate of Security, as well as the customs office, and had reached the central provincial prison (Khaama Press, May 17; Reuters, May 16).
Besides unleashing a robust military campaign elsewhere, Taliban forces have also struck the capital Kabul with a number of suicide attacks and shootings over the last few weeks. Many have targeted police stations, including one on May 9, when five Taliban members attacked a police station in the Shar-e Naw business district (Salam Times, May 9). Similarly suspected Taliban forces targeted Kandahar city with a vehicle borne bomb attack on May 22, and around 21 people were killed and more than 40 people injured in a bomb attack in the city’s Hazrat Ji Baba neighborhood (Afghan Voice Agency, May 23).
The National Directorate of Security suspects the spate of attacks in Kabul is the handiwork of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba (Gandhara, May 10). Earlier, suspicions circulated within Afghan intelligence circles that the Talban’s second in command, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was planning to carry out massive attacks in key cities of Afghanistan, including Kabul, Kandahar and Herat (Khaama Press, April 30). Haqqani, a member of the notorious Haqqani Network, is leading the military commission of the Taliban group and is chief strategist behind the spring offensives.
The Heat of Battle
With the spring offensive under way, the situation in Afghanistan remains fluid. Reports indicate that people have been abandoning their homes in cities and towns after facing massive destruction of infrastructures and looting, and there are competing claims of military successes from both sides.
According to an assessment by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan government has control of more than 229 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, while the resurgent Taliban either control or have influence over 59 districts (Tolo News, May 2). The remaining 119 districts continue to be contested.
Nevertheless, some hope remains for Afghan forces in the form of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and U.S. military backing—in particular through air support (including unmanned aerial vehicles), which could swing things in their favor.
Since the post-2014 U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is little sign that the Taliban’s firepower has waned, or that the group is suffering from battle fatigue. Through persistent violence, the Taliban formations have proven they are still a major force in Afghanistan. It is likely the support structures the group has established over the last two decades remain intact. Since the fall of its so-called Islamic Emirate in 2001, the militant group has restricted the governments that followed from fully governing the country.
While he has denounced the ongoing violence, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has urged the Taliban to “turn bullets and bombs into ballots”—to take part in upcoming elections and run for political office. This effective olive branch appears to come without any preconditions, but Ghani’s gesture underlines the weakness of the incumbent administration in the face of a raging Taliban force.
 Zabihullah Mujahid, Official Twitter Account of the Spokesman of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, May 16, 2018, https://twitter.com/ZabihullaM4/status/996689150689542146