Why are the Afghan Taliban aiming to capture two key cities in the southern Helmand and the northern Kunduz provinces? What is the significance of these areas to the militant Islamist group? DW examines.
Intense fighting has been raging between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces in the volatile Helmand and Kunduz provinces for the past few days. Many districts have fallen to the insurgent group, which is now closing in on the provincial capitals.
Some experts are of the view that the Taliban are only seeking to capture the capitals of Helmand and Kunduz, and their aim is not to take control of the entire provinces. Analysts say it is a calculated move.
"The Taliban had a bad experience last year when they briefly captured the city of Kunduz," Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based analyst, told DW. What the group really wants to achieve, according to Muzhdah, is to showcase their strength.
"The Taliban have been quite successful in exposing the weaknesses of the security forces," said Muzhda.
But Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, believes that even if the Taliban have any intention of capturing more than a few cities in Helmand, they won't be able to do so due to a considerable presence of US troops in the province.
"The US forces are providing operational assistance to Afghan troops in Helmand," Kugelman told DW. "With this active support from US troops, I find it hard to believe that the entire province could fall to the Taliban," he added.
A strategic move
Kunduz and Helmand are strategically important for both the Taliban and the government. Helmand is the biggest producer of opium in the country whereas Kunduz connects northern Afghanistan to central Asia and the rest of the country.
Fighting simultaneously on two different fronts, the Taliban fighters are close to capturing Lashkar Gah, the capital of the Helmand province, and the Kunduz city in the north. If the cities fall to the militants, the Taliban would have complete control over the opium trade in Helmand and they could also cut off Afghanistan's northern areas from the rest of the country.
"What we are seeing is the Taliban demonstrating their resilience in Kunduz, which the group briefly held some time ago, while also showcasing its continued strength in a traditional bastion," said Kugelman.
The expert, however, warns that if Lashkar Gah falls to the Taliban, it could be a "game-changer" in the Afghan war.
"It would give the Taliban a big financial boost, but above all it would send a powerful message to the US and its allies that the Taliban can triumph in areas where foreign troops had tried for so long to eliminate the Taliban threat," he stated.
Muzhdah, however, believes the jihadists have already sent that message to the government and its foreign allies. "I don't think that the control of Lashkar Gah will have a huge impact on the Taliban financing because many opium-producing districts in Helmand have already been under their control for many years," he added.
Afghan forces 'overstretched'
Experts say the government troops need international assistance in the fight against the Taliban as they have been overstretched for a long period of time. The Afghan security forces are fighting the insurgents in many parts of the country without any support from the US or NATO.
Under NATO's new mission, foreign troops cannot engage in a battle; their role is to advise, train and support the local troops.
"The Afghan forces lack the air power and intelligence gathering capacity necessary to fend off the insurgents," Kugelman said.