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KABUL, Afghanistan – War-torn Afghanistan may soon have a defense minister, nine months after the new government was formed and amid some of the toughest fighting since the Talban's insurgency began 14 years ago.
Masoom Stanekzai is better known as a peacemaker than a battlefield strategist, having led the High Peace Council negotiating body charged with ending the conflict with the Taliban, but now he is directing the war. He is expected to be confirmed soon by parliament, though the law allows him to assume the post in an acting capacity.
His appointment will complete President Ashraf Ghani's Cabinet and finally bring what one Western military official called "strong, positive, legitimate civilian leadership" to the military as it tackles an invigorated Taliban without the backing of international forces, which ended their combat mission last year.
The official was not authorized to speak publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Stanekzai takes the job as the Taliban are redefining their war against Kabul, joining forces with other militant groups and spreading the fight to every corner of the country. A change in tactics has taken Afghan security forces by surprise and forced them to spread ever-thinner as their casualty rates soar.
NATO figures show that between January 1 and May 7, Afghan security forces saw a 63 percent increase in those killed and wounded in action as the Taliban spread across the country from their traditional strongholds in the east and south bordering Pakistan.
The figures show 2,322 army, police and local security personnel were killed during that period, 53 percent more than the same period in 2014. From the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban until the drawdown at the end of last year, America lost 2,217 soldiers.
The Taliban are threatening major cities and overrunning remote districts, attacking "on a greater scale, with full force and in many places at once," said Muhammad Jan Rasul Yar, the deputy governor of southern Helmand province.
"They have managed to conquer and capture many districts," he said, adding that desertions among government forces are rising.
"More than 100 districts across the country are vulnerable to being overrun by the Taliban every day," said a central government official familiar with the security situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. "Every day across Afghanistan you have 10, 15, 17, 25 direct clashes between the insurgents and government forces, and now that is happening in areas where there was no serious threat before."
The new battleground is the previously peaceful north, where local warlords have largely been able to keep the Taliban out, but where the new insurgent tactics are proving a match for government forces.
A year-old Pakistani military campaign in the frontier region of North Waziristan has pushed many militants across the border into Afghanistan, where they have joined the Taliban's warm-weather offensive. Afghan officials say these fighters helped the Taliban come close to taking the capital of the northern Kunduz province, bordering Tajikistan, in late April when thousands of gunmen overran villages within just a few kilometers (miles) of the city.
In early June, militants overran a remote district in northern Badakhshan province, which borders Pakistan, China and Tajikistan, displaying the strategy being played out across the country: surprise attacks by large numbers of fighters who overwhelm poorly-manned checkpoints and take control of districts, if only temporarily.
Stanekzai will also have to contend with the small but growing presence of militants pledging support for the Islamic State group. Several Afghan officials have said IS is putting down roots in some regions, notably in Zabul, where Islamic militants from other factions have declared allegiance to the group. One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media, said small IS training camps have been set up in Zabul, as well as Badghis and Faryab further north.
The commander of NATO's western command in Afghanistan, Italian Brig. Gen. Michele Risi, said IS had established a presence in the western Farah province bordering Iran, and that its operatives originally had attempted to ally with the Taliban. "But they were rejected," he said, and clashes erupted between the two groups in late May.
Most Afghan military officials say the IS presence is more a case of disaffected Taliban raising the black flag to rebrand themselves, rather than an established institutional presence. "There are some Taliban misusing the IS flag for their own interests," said the national head of the Afghan Border Police, Maj. Gen. Rahmattullah Raufi.
"IS have their own aggressive plans and, for us, both IS and the Taliban are dangerous, but we should not give any opportunities to IS" to gain a foothold, he said.
A hot summer of fighting had been expected in the southern Taliban belt. With the first signs of an unfolding peace process, expected to take years, emerging with intermittent informal talks, both insurgents and the government appear to want to gain an advantage on the battlefield.
Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan contributed to this story.
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