MAHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan -- Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops, according to Afghan officials and local elders.
The Taliban have found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and are now dominating territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul, the capital, in strategic provinces like Kapisa and Nangarhar.
Their advance has gone unreported because most U.S. forces have left the field and officials in Kabul have largely refused to talk about it. The Afghan ministries have not released casualty statistics since an alarming rise in army and police deaths last year.
At a time when an election crisis is threatening the stability of the government, the Taliban's increasingly aggressive campaign is threatening another crucial facet of the U.S. withdrawal plan -- full security by Afghan forces this year.
"They are running a series of tests right now at the military level, seeing how people respond," one Western official said, describing a Taliban effort to gauge how quickly they could advance. "They are trying to figure out: Can they do it now, or will it have to wait" until after the U.S. withdrawal, the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the coalition has officially ceded security control.
Interviews with local officials and residents in several strategic areas around the country suggest that, given the success of their attacks, the Taliban are growing bolder just two months into the fighting season, at great cost to Afghan military and police forces.
In Kapisa, a verdant province just north of Kabul that includes a vital highway to northern Afghanistan, insurgents are openly challenging and even driving away the security forces in several districts. Security forces in Tagab District take fire daily from the Taliban, who control everything but the district center. Insurgents in Alasay district, northeast of Kabul, recently laid siege to an entire valley for more than a week, forcing hundreds of residents and 45 police officers to flee. At least some of the local police in a neighboring district have cut deals with the Taliban to save themselves.
In the past month, a once-safe district beside the major city of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, has fallen under Taliban control, and a district along a crucial highway nearby is under constant threat from the Taliban. South of Kabul, police forces in significant parts of Logar and Wardak provinces have been under frequent attack, to deadly effect.
But there are only anecdotal reports to help gauge just how deadly the offensive has been. The Afghan defense and interior ministries stopped releasing casualty data after a shocking surge of military and police deaths in 2013 began raising questions about the country's ability to sustain the losses. By September, with more than 100 soldiers and police officers dying every week, even the commander of the International Security Assistance Force suggested the losses could not be sustained.
Asked for figures on the latest security force casualties this year, both ministries refused to provide data or confirm accounts from local officials. But there are signs that the casualty rate is likely to be at least as bad as it was last year.
In one important indicator, the U.N. reported a 24 percent rise in civilian casualties for the first half of this year compared with a similar period from 2013, hitting a new peak since the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began tracking the data in 2009. More significantly, for the first time, the highest number of those casualties came from ground fighting between the Afghan forces and insurgents rather than from roadside bombs.
The U.N. found that more fighting was taking place near populous areas, closer to the district centers that serve as the government seats.