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Taliban launch spring offensive as election drags on

Just days before the official results from the first round of election voting are scheduled to be announced in Afghanistan, the Taliban launched their spring offensive on Monday with a wave of attacks that left at least 16 people dead across the country.

Insurgents killed four policemen at a checkpoint in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in the south, said Sulaiman Shah Sarwani, a district governor in Helmand province. At least two more policemen and 5 civilians died in an attack on a Justice Department building in the eastern city of Jalalabad, Afghan officials said.

All three attackers perished during the subsequent firefights with security forces. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility on behalf of the insurgent group.

In separate attacks, rockets were fired at the international airport in Kabul and at the massive U.S. air base at Bagram.

No one was killed in either strike, according to media reports, but another rocket strike near Bagram claimed the lives of two Afghan civilians. Three more civilians died in a attacks on checkpoints near the city of Ghazni, to the south of Kabul, said provincial governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi.

Many other smaller skirmishes were reported around the country.

The attacks came on the first day of the Taliban’s self-proclaimed spring offensive, and comes as the country’s presidential election process grinds forward. The first round of voting on April 5 did not produce a winner with more than 50 percent of the ballots cast, so a second round will take place in coming weeks.

The Taliban vowed to disrupt the election. But despite a massive number of attacks across the country on election day, a crackdown by security forces kept casualties relatively low and prevented any high-profile strikes in major cities.

Still, the rising level of violence overall has few analysts expecting the Taliban and other insurgents to do anything but continue the fight after the U.S.-led NATO coalition withdraws its combat troops by the end of this year.

“We can expect a continued rise in violence in 2014 and 2015, in part because that has been the trend, and in part because they are election years,” Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Stars and Stripes.

“But more fundamentally there is still a lot of unfinished business in this conflict.” Between unresolved political and personal scores to settle, and lingering ethnic rivalries, there are “just a lot of reasons why people still want to fight,” he said.

According to a report released on Monday by ICG, the number of insurgent attacks in Afghanistan increased 15-20 percent in 2013 compared to 2012.

Most NATO troops are expected to spend the rest of the year packing up and leaving, with Afghan forces largely responsible for taking on the stubborn insurgency.

While exact casualty figures are not released by either side, ICG analysts estimated that Afghan security forces have experienced nearly as many casualties as they inflicted. In 2013, according to the report, there were 8,200 Afghan troops injured or killed, while the Taliban suffered about 9,500 casualties. With relatively more advanced evacuation and medical capabilities than the insurgents, more injured Afghan security forces were saved, Smith said.

Current President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign an agreement that could keep thousands of U.S. advisers in Afghanistan past the end of 2014. Although all the leading presidential contenders have said they would sign the deal, a new president may not be named for some time.

Over the weekend, presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul, who was widely seen as backed by Karzai, threw his support to frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah. According to preliminary results from the April 5th election, Abdullah won 44.9 percent, followed by Ashraf Ghani, with 31.5 percent. Rassoul came in third with 11.5 percent.

Afghan election officials are in the process of investigating hundreds of reports of fraud. They are expected to announce official results later this week.

Naiem Naiemullah contributed to this report.

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith
 

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