KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — In the rugged terrain of the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, the fight against the Kabul government has become a war for control of key stretches of main roads and highways as the insurgents use a new tactic to gain ground.
First they storm a checkpoint, kill all the police, seize their weapons and equipment and effectively cut off the main road to a remote village. They raise the white Taliban flag and plant roadside bombs to prevent cars from coming through the checkpoint. Any vehicle that tries to pass through is either blown up or attacked, residents and local leaders say.
Then they wait.
Food supplies soon dwindle and prices rise, forcing villagers to abandon their homes and move to where they can afford to eat and live. Most sneak out on foot or on donkeys via backroads and mountain paths, leaving many of their belongings behind.
The new tactic has helped the Taliban gain ground, albeit at a slower pace than a deadly, surprise raid on an entire village. For the insurgents, starving a population out is less costly than forcing them out at gunpoint and risking armed resistance. The Taliban are seeking to expand their footprint at any cost — even if that means raising their flag over an empty village.
The tactic demonstrates a significant shift in emphasis. In the past, fighters would first try to attack high-profile government targets, such as district administration buildings and police headquarters. Now, by focusing their firepower on checkpoints at the edges of towns and villages, they can gain ground more cheaply. Checkpoints are easier to overpower and police often surrender, handing over weaponry and vehicles.
The Taliban have been waging war against Kabul since 2001, when their regime was overthrown in the U.S.-led invasion. Since the international combat troops pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014, leaving behind only a largely training and advising contingent, the insurgency has intensified as government forces struggle to take the lead in the battle.
The Taliban are refocusing their attention mostly on the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan, according to U.S. and Afghan military officials, although the insurgents also have struck elsewhere, such as in Kunduz province in the north, where they overran and held the provincial capital for a few days last fall.
The results have been daunting: The U.N. says 3,545 Afghan civilians were killed and 7,457 wounded in 2015, most of them by the Taliban.
In the south, one of the worst-hit areas is Uruzgan province, where the Taliban have been putting pressure in recent weeks on Afghan forces around the provincial capital of Tirin Kot, said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, the U.S. military spokesman in Kabul.
"The Taliban's main focus in the south is now Uruzgan," and U.S. forces have been providing assistance and air support as needed, he said.
The director of Uruzgan's provincial council, Abdul Hakeem Khadimzai, described the situation there as the "worst in 15 years." In May alone, he said, about 200 security forces were killed and more than 300 were wounded in Uruzgan.
The figures are an estimate. Khadimzai insisted that if he were to include civilians, "then they would be doubled." The numbers could not be independently verified, since the Afghan government does not release military and police casualty figures.
"Every day our forces are stepping back, and every day the Taliban are controlling more and more area," he said. "Our security forces are trying their best to control the area, but they can't because logistics supplies are not delivered on time."
Uruzgan residents and community leaders say the highway connecting Tirin Kot to the city of Kandahar, 163 kilometers (101 miles) away, has been closed since March. And the road linking the Khas Uruzgan district with the rest of the province has been blocked for about a year.
With the Taliban gaining ground, areas under government control have shrunk. Khadimzai describes Tirin Kot now as an "island of government control disconnected from the rest of the province."
The closures have more than doubled the prices for basic goods in some areas, he said.
In Khas Uruzgan, Dihrawud and Charchino districts, wheat now costs 3,200 afghanis ($47) for a sack of 45 kilograms (99 pounds), compared with 1,900 afghanis elsewhere in the country. Cooking oil is 540 afghanis for a container of 3 kilograms (6 pounds, 9 ounces), compared with the national average of 260 afghanis.
Most fresh produce is grown locally but farmers in cutoff areas cannot get to markets to sell their goods, said Aminullah Hotaqi, a tribal elder and former Uruzgan council chief.
Earlier this year, Noor Muhammad Noori had to close shop in his hometown in Khas Uruzgan and moved with his family to Tirin Kot, where he runs a general store. He said he just couldn't afford the dwindling supplies that were making it through the blocked highway — nor could his customers.
"After the road was cut off for a year ... I couldn't get food through for my family, and couldn't afford to pay the prices in Khas Uruzgan," he said.
Between Jan. 1 and April 30, "117,976 people fled their homes due to conflict" in 24 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the U.N. mission in Kabul said. Amnesty International said this week the number of internally displaced people has doubled in three years, to 1.2 million.
A Tirin Kot taxi driver says the road closures have hit him hard: He no longer has any business taking people outside the city, but nor do any other taxi drivers, so competition in the city is fierce and his earnings have plummeted.
"Now I can't afford to buy fuel. How am I going to feed my children?" he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. Like other residents in the area, he spoke to The Associated Press over the telephone.
After a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour last month, questions emerged on which direction the insurgency would take under his successor, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, a conservative cleric with no battlefield experience.
Akhundzada's deputies — Mullah Yaqoub, son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads a brutal faction designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group — are expected to escalate the violence as Akhundzada moves to consolidate his leadership position. The fight in the southern, opium poppy-producing regions will probably intensify once the harvest is done.
For Uruzgan residents, Kabul seems both far away and unwilling to help.
"It's time the government realized the day is not far off when its security forces will try to control the area, and they'll find that the civilians are fighting on the side of the Taliban," Khadimzai said.