The Afghan government's battlefield victories in certain parts of the country have been overshadowed by the Taliban's much larger gains elsewhere. Of particular concern to the U.S. and Afghan governments is Helmand province, a strategic southern region that is home to a sizable Pashtun population and a considerable amount of opium. Despite heavy U.S. airstrikes in the area, the Taliban — who already control 80 percent of the region — have steadily encroached on the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The insurgents have even reportedly deployed a new commando force equipped with night vision optics and staffed with sharpshooters to facilitate their advance on Helmand.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have also launched offensives across the country to stretch Afghan security forces even thinner, ratcheting up the pressure on Kabul. In doing so, the Taliban are taking advantage of an opening created by the recent changes in U.S. and Afghan strategy: checkpoints. To free up the forces needed for their proactive campaign, Afghan troops have had to weaken and even dismantle many of their checkpoints. This has given Taliban fighters in numerous areas an opportunity to converge on and sever key roads, isolating and coercing the villages caught in the middle into joining them without having to launch costly direct assaults. The Taliban have successfully applied this tactic to several provinces, including Uruzgan and Ghazni.
Even in the east, where the Taliban and Islamic State have long feuded with each other, the two have reached a temporary cease-fire to better focus their efforts on attacking the government. The short-term cessation in hostilities has enabled the Taliban to concentrate on pushing back Afghan troops in Nangarhar province, while the Islamic State has expanded its reach in neighboring Kunar. Perhaps more concerning, though, are the Taliban's attempts to rebuild their presence in the north. The threat the group poses to Afghanistan's crucial ring road, which circles the country, is rising, particularly in Baghlan province, where the Taliban are trying to cut off a portion of the road to restrict Kabul's access to the northern provinces.
Washington's military planners originally expected Afghan troops to be able to hold their own more than a decade after the United States' initial invasion. But with instability still plaguing Afghanistan's north, south and east, they are as dependent on foreign air power and aid as they were when Operation Enduring Freedom began. The United States' withdrawal from Iraq — and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State — serves as a cautionary tale to Afghanistan's foreign partners, though. Fearing a similar outcome, the United States will continue to send the government in Kabul as much help as it needs to stay afloat, even as Washington and its NATO allies grow anxious to shift their attention elsewhere.