ISLAMABAD — The Afghan Taliban announced the beginning of their spring offensive on Friday, promising to build their political base in the country while focusing military assaults on the international coalition and Afghan security forces.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced the launch of the offensive in an emailed statement that boasted of Taliban control over more than half of the country, referring to a February report issued by Washington's special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction.
That report said the Afghan government had control or influence over only 52 per cent of Afghanistan's 407 districts last year, down from 63.4 per cent previously.
The Taliban dubbed this year's offensive "Operation Mansouri," named for the Taliban leader killed last year in a U.S. drone strike.
"Hence, keeping the evolving situation in mind, this year's Mansouri operations will differ from previous ones in nature and will be conducted with a twin-tracked political and military approach," said Mujahid. He did not make any mention of peace talks with the government.
Attempts to find a peaceful end to Afghanistan's protracted war have been relentlessly unsuccessful.
On the political side, Mujahid said the Taliban were going to begin building institutions in areas under their control, establishing what he called "social justice and development" mechanisms.
He didn't offer specifics or indicate whether this meant the Taliban would step up their brand of justice, which during their rule included public executions and the chopping off of hands for those convicted of theft.
Recent Taliban attacks, including one earlier this week on an army base in northern Afghanistan that killed more than 140 Afghan soldiers, would seem to warn of a tough fighting season ahead. In the latest attack, the Taliban disguised as Afghan army soldiers slipped into the compound of the 209 Corps in northern Afghanistan's Balkh province. While two militants exploded their suicide vests, the others opened fire on scores of soldiers.
As well as the Taliban, Afghanistan is also battling an emerging local affiliate of the Islamic State group known as Islamic State in Khorasan, which is an ancient name for a region that once included Afghanistan, Iran and parts of Central Asia.
On Thursday two U.S. Army Rangers were killed and a third incurred minor injuries during a battle against Islamic State fighters in their stronghold in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, according to the U.S. military.
The U.S. forces were accompanying Afghan troops when they came under attack by the Islamic State Khorasan, according to Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, the U.S. military spokesman in Kabul. He said dozens of IS fighters were also killed but because of the remoteness of the region it was impossible to independently confirm the deaths.
The attack occurred in the same area where two weeks ago the U.S. dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on an IS complex.
The U.S. has been aiding the Afghan Security Forces in their battle against the IS in Afghanistan and estimates that the extremist group has about 800 fighters in the country.
Meanwhile Friday an Afghan Parliamentarian said the Taliban captured a remote district in the country's northeastern Badakhshan Province. Mohammad Zekria Sawda said the district fell after heavy fighting. In an emailed statement the Taliban also claimed the district, while Badakhshan's deputy governor Mohammad Bidar said fighting between Afghan Security Forces and the Taliban was still intense in the area. He also said it was difficult to determine the number of casualties because of the remoteness of the region.
The Taliban's announcement of the offensive coincides with the anniversary of Afghanistan's so-called Saur Revolution against its pro-Russian rulers, which led to a 10-year uprising by U.S.-backed Islamic insurgents or mujahedeen against an invading Soviet army. The Soviets withdrew defeated in 1989.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.
Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press