The Taliban has made "tactical victories" in Afghanistan, and its military campaign in a troubled southern province has prompted deployment of around 100 American troops to defend its capital at risk of falling to the Islamist insurgency, a spokesman for U.S. forces said Monday.
"The Taliban has had some tactical victories and that will likely continue as well … [But] they still have not been able to achieve their strategic desire and goal to seize a major population center here in Afghanistan," Brigadier General Charles Cleveland told reporters in Kabul.
Fierce battles have been raging in several districts of the southern Helmand province and territorial victories there have brought the Taliban closer to its capital, Lashkar Gah.
Cleveland said that recent deployment of U.S. forces in the city is meant to train, advise and assist Afghan partners to enable them to better plan counteroffensives and retake lost areas. But he ruled out the possibility of the city's fall to the Taliban.
"The Taliban have the ability to commit violent acts ... sometimes in the city or in the suburbs, and certainly we have seen that in some of the districts. But we don't believe that Lashkar Gah is about to fall," the spokesman asserted.
Cleveland acknowledged that Taliban fighters have used new tactics during recent fighting, enabling them to inflict losses on Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) in Helmand.
"Again, clearly concerning, but on the flip side of it they are still not able to hold in most instances major population centers or major strategic areas down in Helmand," he noted.
The largest Afghan province borders Pakistan, and its billions of dollars' worth of opium crop produces most of the world's heroin and is used to fund the Islamist insurgency.
The insurgents also have intensified attacks in northern and northeastern Afghan provinces, including Baghlan, Kunduz and Takhar near the border with Central Asian countries.
The Taliban overran a district in Takhar on Monday, but Afghan forces staged a counteroffensive with the support of airstrikes and retook the area hours later, although intense fighting was still raging there.
The rebels also captured a key district, Khan Abad, in Kunduz on Saturday but were pushed out by Afghan forces hours later. The territorial victory had brought the Taliban on the verge of attacking the provincial capital, also named Kunduz.
Officials and residents say that Taliban insurgents have intensified attacks in and around Kunduz over the past few days and have blown up a key bridge linking the city to several districts in the province.
The insurgent group has denied it destroyed the bridge and instead accused U.S. airstrikes of targeting the facility.
Local Afghan officials say that American attack helicopters are assisting government forces and attacking Taliban positions to keep the insurgents from Kunduz.
Cleveland, however, dismissed fears that the city is about to collapse to the Taliban, saying Afghan forces are better placed to defend Kunduz and, if needed, NATO as well as U.S. forces will be there to assist and "prevent strategic defeat."
The Taliban briefly captured the city for about two weeks before Afghan forces drove them out with the help of U.S. air support last October. This was the first time in the 15-year war that the insurgents captured a major city in Afghanistan, dealing a major blow to U.S.-trained Afghan security forces.