Taliban Gain Ground in Afghanistan as Soldiers Surrender Their Posts - NYTimes.com

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Besieged Afghan officials in the southern province of Oruzgan said on Sunday that scores of regular Afghan soldiers had surrendered in the past week to the Taliban, a trend also occurring recently in other provinces.

The latest case involved 41 Afghan National Army soldiers who surrendered and turned their base, the Mashal base in Chora District, over to the insurgents on Saturday night, according to Dost Mohammad Nayab, the spokesman for the province’s governor.

He said it was the third Afghan Army post in the province to surrender to the Taliban in the past week. Significant surrenders have been reported in Kunduz and Helmand Provinces as well.

The Taliban have taken more territory in Afghanistan this year than at any time in their 15-year struggle against the Western-supported Afghan government, according to United Nations data. At the same time, the Afghan military has suffered declining numbers and high attrition rates, according to data from the United States military. Afghan officials have said military casualty rates are historically high.

Oruzgan Province has been under heavy siege for nearly two months, and its capital, Tirin Kot, has nearly fallen to the insurgents four times in that period, according to the provincial governor, Abdul Karim Karimi. In the past, there have been numerous defections by Afghan police officers in Oruzgan, with 20 outposts abandoned in September and many of the officers suspected of changing sides, the governor said.

But the better trained and equipped Afghan military has proved more cohesive than the police, which makes the recent surrenders particularly worrisome.

On Thursday, Mr. Nayab said, 15 Afghan soldiers gave themselves up and surrendered their base, known as Kitod, which guards the road linking the provincial capital to the heavily contested Chora District. Twenty soldiers surrendered a base known as Sajawal on the outskirts of Tirin Kot a week ago.

In addition, Mr. Nayab said, 70 members of the Afghan Civil Order Police, a militarized and elite police unit, surrendered their base near Tirin Kot, known as Garmaw, about three weeks ago. In all cases, the soldiers surrendered all of their equipment and weapons, he said.

“The government is unable to provide supply by air, and the soldiers in the bases are stuck without even enough food, so finally they are surrendering to the Taliban,” Mr. Nayab said.

A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, Dawlat Waziri, confirmed that the Taliban had captured the Mashal base, but he denied that any Afghan soldiers had surrendered.

“Afghan Army members have never surrendered to the enemy,” he said. “They have been killed or wounded, but have never in our history surrendered.” He said an investigation was underway.

On Sunday, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction issued its quarterly report to the United States Congress. It cited data provided by the American-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan showing the Afghan military declining in size because of recruitment problems and increased attrition.

According to the report, the Afghan military’s uniformed forces declined by 2,199 in the third quarter of 2016, leaving the army at 87 percent of its authorized military strength of about 170,000. Attrition in the military, caused by rising casualties, declining re-enlistments and desertions, was about 33 percent annually as of August, the report said — an increase from 28 percent a year earlier.

The American inspector general’s report also cited data showing that 33 of Afghanistan’s 400 districts were under Taliban control or influence, while 116 districts were contested, one of many indications of how much the conflict has spread.

According to the United Nations, this year 382,000 Afghan civilians had been forced to flee from 196 districts, in nearly every province, as of October. That was up from 135 districts during 2015.

In addition to Oruzgan, areas hit particularly hard by recent fighting include the provinces of Kunduz in the north and Helmand in the southwest. In Kunduz, the capital has been overrun by the insurgents twicein thelast year. And in Helmand, the Taliban have repeatedly advanced to within short distances of the capital, Lashkar Gah, which remains under threat.

United States airstrikes have repeatedly prevented all three places from falling completely to the insurgents. But American forces still in Afghanistan — numbering about 10,000, compared with a peak of 140,000 a few years ago — have made little difference on the ground.

Lately, the Taliban insurgents have begun regularly uploading videos showing captured soldiers, boasting of treating them well and allowing them to return to their families as long as they promise not to rejoin the fight.

One video showed the soldiers who surrendered at Sajawal, in Oruzgan, last week. An Afghan reporter for The New York Times who recognized one of the soldiers confirmed its authenticity.

Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar, and Rod Nordland from Kabul. Fahim Abed and Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting from Kabul.