JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The Taliban unleashed a wave of attacks that killed 21 people around 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 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.
Around 30,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground in Afghanistan, the lowest number since the 2001 invasion.
The Taliban warned last week that they'd launch their annual spring offensive on Monday, and it was no bluff — with a flurry of rocket blasts and attacks on police around the country and the storming of a government building in an eastern city.
The violence began with a pre-dawn rocket attack on the main NATO base at Bagram, just north of the Afghan capital, as well as another on Kabul's international airport soon after — both largely symbolic, doing little damage.
But around 9 a.m., three Taliban attackers 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, including three armored vehicles that took up positions around the new two-story concrete building. Gunners on the vehicles blasted the building with heavy machine guns from several directions during a 4 ½-hour gunbattle with the militants inside.
By the end, the building was devastated, with burned-out offices and smashed furniture, an Associated Press photographer who entered the building said.
Five civilians were killed, including three elderly employees of the office, and seven other civilians wounded in the battle. 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.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the Jalalabad attack in an email to reporters. He said the attack was retaliation for what he called harsh rulings by the justice ministry against the Taliban.
With foreign forces in the background, Afghan forces have faced the brunt of militant attacks the past year. In 2013, insurgents inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan security forces in 2013 as they suffered themselves, according to a report released Monday by the International Crisis Group. It cited an estimate by a "western security analyst" of 9,500 insurgents killed or wounded that year, compared to 8,200 members of the Afghan security forces.
"With less risk of attack from international forces, they are massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements" with Afghan forces, the ICG said in its report.
This year's Taliban spring offensive comes at a sensitive time, against the backdrop of a key presidential election. Militants have already stepped up terror attacks to sow insecurity amid the voting. Final results of the first round of the election, held April 5, are scheduled to be announced on Wednesday. The two top vote-getters are widely expected to face a runoff later this month
Afghan political analyst Abass Noyan said Monday's attack in Jalalabad and the others Monday showed the Taliban maintains a capacity for disruption, but he rejected the idea that it showed Taliban's strength.
"It's not a sign of strength, they have no more strength," Noyan said, "They just want to show they are alive and can still make problems."
Noyan said Monday's attacks were no worse than those staged by the Taliban at the start of past spring offensives. This year, the Taliban named their offensive Khaybar, after the 629 A.D. Battle of Khaybar, when Muslims in present day Saudia Arabia attacked a Jewish settlement near the city of Medina.
In the other attacks Monday, insurgents killed nine policemen in an attack on a checkpoint in southern Helmand province, the local governor Sulaiman Shah Sarwani said. North of Kabul, a rocket hit a market in Parwan province, killing two civilians and wounding four. The Taliban also claimed responsibility for that attack.
Elsewhere in the east, groups of militants, including some on motorbikes, attacked police checkpoints on the outskirts of the city of Ghazni, killing two women and a policeman and wounding eight people, said the provincial governor, Mohammad Ali Ahmadi.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the Ghazni attack.
Elsewhere in Jalalabad, attackers targeted a police vehicle and detonated a roadside bomb, wounding six people, including two policemen.
Faiez reported from Kabul. Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Greg Keller in Kabul contributed to this report.