JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The Taliban unleashed a wave of attacks that killed 21 people across the country, making a show of strength to start the spring fighting season. The annual surge in violence poses a new test for Afghan security forces, who for the first time will face it largely on their own as international combat forces prepare to withdraw.
Spring each year brings an escalation in fighting in Afghanistan with the end of snowy winter weather, which hampers movement. The melting of the snows opens up mountain passes allowing militant forces to move in from refuges in neighboring Pakistan.
This year's offensive by the Taliban will be an important gauge of how well Afghan government forces will face insurgent attacks once foreign combat forces leave at the end of the year. Since last spring, Afghan troops and police have taken up full security duties in the country, with U.S. and NATO troops training and mentoring in the background, rarely intervening directly with air support.
About 30,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground in Afghanistan, the lowest number since the 2001 invasion.
The Taliban warned last week they would launch their annual spring offensive Monday, and it was no bluff — with a flurry of rocket blasts and attacks on police across the country and the storming of a government building in an eastern city.
The violence began with a predawn rocket attack on the NATO base at Bagram, north of the Afghan capital, and another on Kabul's international airport soon after — both largely symbolic, doing little damage.
But around 9 a.m., three Taliban fighters attacked a provincial Justice Ministry building in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. They shot and killed two police guards and rushed into the building, just as employees were arriving for work, said provincial government spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai.
Security forces rushed to the scene. Three armored vehicles took up positions around the new concrete building, blasting it with heavy machine guns during a 4 ½-hour battle with the militants inside.
Five civilians were killed and seven others wounded. Once they retook the building, police found two dead attackers along with the remains of a third who police say died when he detonated an explosive vest.