LOGAR, Afghanistan: As many as 700 heavily armed Taliban insurgents are battling Afghan security forces in Logar, a key province near the capital Kabul, local officials said Tuesday, in a test of the Afghan military's strength as foreign forces pull out of the country.
Militants have this summer mounted increasingly intensive assaults across several provinces, often involving hundreds of fighters, as the country braces to stand on it own feet militarily for the first time in nearly 13 years.
"There are some 700 of them and they are fighting Afghan forces for territorial control and they have also brought with them makeshift mobile (health) clinics," Niaz Mohammad Amiri, the provincial governor of Logar province, told Reuters by telephone.
The Taliban have made strong gains in Logar, which lies about an hour's drive south of Kabul, and nearby Wardak province to the west, in recent years.
Militants have used the provinces - gateways to the capital - as launchpads for hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings on Kabul.
The fighting in Logar is a grim reminder of the insecurity plaguing Afghanistan as the foreign combat troops wind down their military operations ahead a deadline to leave the country by the end of this year.
The insurgents' success has been limited this year: they have yet to capture an entire province, and the government says strategic assets remain broadly under its control.
Nevertheless, the mounting intensity of the Taliban's assaults poses an increasingly serious challenge to local security forces that have long relied on NATO support from the air.
No longer pinned down by U.S. air cover, Taliban fighters have changed tactics and now attack Afghan military posts in larger numbers with the aim of taking and holding ground, a shift from the hit-and-run strikes with posses of gunmen, explosives and suicide bombers.
In this year's summer offensive, the Taliban appears to have mostly focused on gaining ground in strategic parts of the country, like border crossings or highways that facilitate the export of opium, the financial lifeblood of their insurgency.
Afghan officials say uncertainty in Kabul over the outcome of this year's presidential election to choose Hamid Karzai's successor has added to the vulnerability of the security forces.
Two months have passed since the run-off round of the election was held, but a winner has yet to emerge due to accusations of mass fraud and rivals Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani have both claimed victory.