Soldiers from Afghanistan’s special forces paused for a short prayer late on Sunday night on a deserted stretch of highway in the southern province of Kandahar. They do so each time they prepare to face Taliban militants in battle.
The highly trained troops had been called in to flush out insurgents who attacked regular forces and local police hours earlier, only to find that the Taliban had disappeared into the darkness leaving behind a few civilians and wounded soldiers.
“We received a report that the enemy had infiltrated here and wanted to overthrow the district,” Major Mohammad din Tasir, a member of the special forces unit deployed in the Taliban’s former stronghold of Kandahar, told Reuters after the operation.
The report had suggested up to 300 Taliban fighters were present in the area, he said.
“Unfortunately, what we heard in the report and what we saw on the scene did not match.”
Tasir said the absence of Taliban fighters showed that claims by the group that they now controlled up to 85% of the country’s territory were exaggerated.
It also underlined the difficulty in facing an enemy that mixes open assaults on checkpoints, villages, towns and cities with hit-and-run tactics that tend to avoid heavy casualties.
Recent territorial gains by the Taliban come as foreign troops led by the U.S. military withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, leaving the task of pulling the country from a spiralling security crisis to local forces.
On Monday, the U.S. general leading the war in Afghanistan, Austin Miller, will relinquish his command, in a symbolic end to America’s longest conflict.