Ashraf Ghani suffers a setback on the first anniversary of his presidency.
The Taliban attack on the Kandahar airbase that left dozens dead has cast new doubt on Afghan security forces’ preparedness and also on the future of the country’s relations with Pakistan.
Official details about the number of casualties and the nature of the attack, which began on Tuesday night, have been conflicting, with the defence ministry saying 38 civilians, 10 Afghan soldiers and two police officers were killed.
Kandahar police, however, told Al Jazeera that 52 civilians, seven security officers and all 14 attackers were killed.
“It is high time for Afghan security forces to revise their strategies to prevent such major attacks by the Taliban. The threat is not just from the Taliban but also from ISIL emerging in Afghanistan,” Faizullah Zaland, a political analyst based in Kabul, told Al Jazeera, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.
“The Taliban is trying to prove it is strong and, so far, it has been successful. If we look back at the Kunduz attack of September, it was very well planned. Same goes for the assault on the airbase.
“Such attacks are increasing and it seems like it will only get worse. Most of the areas in Badakhshan province are already under Taliban control.”
The attackers targeted a residential compound and military bases at the airport, which is used by Afghan, US and NATO military forces.
There they held a number of hostages as they engaged in a tense firefight with security officials.
As the Kandahar assault was under way, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday for the Heart of Asia regional conference that aimed to revive peace talks with the Taliban.
The conference ended with Afghanistan agreeing to restart dialogue with the Taliban with the help of Pakistan, the US and China.
Omar Satai, a Pashtun tribal leader in Kandahar, says the timing of the attack – on the eve of Ghani’s visit to Pakistan – was meant to express the Taliban’s “opposition to the visit and peace talks”.
“The Taliban clearly don’t want peace talks. And even if it does, it has conditions which have to be fulfilled before talks even start,” he said.
“The conflict won’t end any time soon. No area is safe and secure in Afghanistan.”
Heart of Asia conference
As the battle raged in Kandahar, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, promised to cooperate, saying he was committed to renewing the Afghan peace process at the Heart of Asia, a two-day conference held in Pakistan.
“The emergence of newer and more threatening terrorist groups like Daesh should also strengthen our resolve against terrorism,” he said at the conference on Wednesday.
“We should envisage collective and coordinated measures on the regional security front to ensure that the gains and struggle against terrorism are durable and irreversible.”
The meeting, an annual gathering of Asian and other countries, comes months after the first, inconclusive talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Afghan forces have struggled to check Taliban advances since the US and NATO formally concluded their combat mission at the end of last year.
Three months ago, the fighters briefly took over the northern city of Kunduz before it was driven out by Afghan forces backed by US air strikes.
The developments have dealt a major setback to the country’s NATO-trained security forces and highlight the Taliban’s potential to expand beyond its rural strongholds.