The Taliban claims it gained control of about 10 percent of Afghanistan during the past year, and says it still holds most of the captured territory.
A senior Afghan defense official did not discuss the Taliban claims, but said Saturday that Afghan counter-terrorist squads raided a Taliban-controlled prison and freed scores of inmates in Helmand province, an area that both the Taliban and the Kabul government have struggled to control.
The Afghan official said government security forces carried out the operation at the prison without ground support from NATO units, and only limited intelligence and planning support by the U.S. military.
The Taliban said its temporary capture of the key northern city of Kunduz in September was the most significant action in 2015. The group's "review of jihadi progress in 2015," sent to reporters Saturday, claimed the past 12 months were "one of the most successful and inspiring" periods for its fighters in the past 15 years — since before American forces and other coalition troops arrived in Afghanistan to oust a Taliban administration in 2001.
The past year "was fraught with numerous significant and sometimes unanticipated achievements," the Taliban review contended.
The Taliban claims to control 34 of nearly 400 districts across Afghanistan, in more half of the country's provinces. Afghan and Western security officials quoted this week in The Washington Post estimated the Taliban's influence was even greater; they said the insurgents either control or have a significant presence in roughly 30 percent of the districts.
The Taliban "progress review" said insurgents have been active in a long list of Afghan provinces — Farah, Badghis, Ghor, Panjshir, Badakhshan, Baghlan, Helmand, Herat, Kunduz, Nuristan, Sar-e Pul, Paktika, Takhar, Logar, Jowzjan, Faryab, Kandahar and Ghazni.
At the beginning of 2016, the Taliban said, battlefield advances have put its fighters closer to several provincial centers, and claimed Taliban fighters are only "a stone's throw away" from the capitals of Baghlan, Helmand and Faryab provinces.
With support from U.S. and other NATO military units, Afghan security forces struggled for weeks to retake control of Helmand, the southern province where most of Afghanistan’s poppy crop is grown. The Taliban claims it either controls or threatens to control 10 of Helmand's 14 districts.
The government's deputy defense spokesman, Dawlat Waziri, declined to discuss the Taliban claims in detail when he met with reporters Saturday in Kabul.
“We should all accept that there is a war going on in Afghanistan. Our security forces, including army, police and intelligence personnel, are getting killed every day while undertaking heroic acts of defending their country,” Waziri said, urging critics to respect these sacrifices.
Waziri confirmed that Afghan army commandos freed about 60 people overnight from a Taliban prison in Helmand, which borders Pakistan. Those released included security personnel who had been held hostage by the insurgents.
NATO confirmed that Afghanistan's national counterterrorism unit, the 1st Ktah Klas (KKA), carried out the raid Friday night and early Saturday in northeastern Helmand.
A NATO statement said the Afghan Air Force's Special Mission Wing conducted a helicopter assault to free the prisoners in the Nahr-e-Saraj district without suffering any casualties.
"U.S. forces provided only limited intelligence and planning support to this operation," a coalition spokesman said. "No U.S. forces were on the ground during the operation."
During more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan, NATO forces have worked to drive Taliban fighters from their traditional heartland in Helmand province. Overall, however, a recent United Nations assessment showed the Taliban expanded its influence in parts of Afghanistan last year that had not seen any insurgent activity since 2001.
Through November, about 7,000 members of the Afghan security forces were killed during 2015, and 12,000 wounded — a 26 percent increase in the total number of dead and wounded in all of 2014, The Washington Post reported, quoting a Western official with access to recent NATO statistics.
A spokesman for NATO’s Resolute Support mission said approximately 6,500 civilians were killed or wounded by insurgent attacks in 2015.