By Hamid Shalizi and James Mackenzie
KABUL (Reuters) - A combination of airstrikes and a Taliban apparently still adapting to its new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has given a lift to Afghan forces that had braced for heavy fighting at the start of summer.
After 15 years of war, nobody believes a lull in fighting seen over the past few weeks is a decisive shift in the conflict. Officials even admit to some surprise at the problems facing the Taliban, which launched its annual spring offensive in April promising major attacks across the country.
The insurgents started their spring offensive in April with a major push to take Kunduz, the strategic northern city its fighters briefly seized last year. A bumper opium crop promised to swell the coffers of the insurgents who control much of the trade, allowing them to pay for more fighters and equipment.
But the assault on Kunduz city was beaten back and fighting has eased in other key regions including the southern province of Helmand, where government forces were holding on in a few district centres after heavy fighting in the winter.
A Taliban drive to cut off the main highway linking the southern provinces of Uruzgan and Kandahar, which led to fierce fighting in May, was also quelled and Afghan government forces backed by U.S. air power have gone on the attack in Kandahar.
Haibatullah, a hardline cleric who took over after his predecessor Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May, is respected in the movement for his religious credentials. But Afghan and Western officials say he does not appear to have Mansour's administrative ability.
At the same time, the movement's wider leadership has suffered, with 45 senior figures, including key commanders in Helmand, Ghazni, Kunduz and Kandahar killed over the past six months, according to information from the interior ministry.
"Last year, we were more in active defence mode and the enemies were attacking us, but this year we are after them," said Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi.
With U.S. commanders free to step up air strikes against the Taliban since President Barack Obama gave them broader powers in June, operations are being conducted "almost daily", the top NATO commander Gen. John Nicholson said last week.
Afghanistan's own special forces and its fledgling airforce, including eight A-29 jets, have also played a growing role in hitting the Taliban forces and chains of command.
The Taliban have been scornful of claims of coalition success, issuing a statement last week dismissing the "futile" change to U.S. rules of engagement.
But Mohammad Rasoul Zazai, spokesman for the 215th Maiwand army corps in Helmand, said insurgents were avoiding large formations and were patrolling only in small groups of 10 or 15.
"The Taliban are no longer in a position to attack in large numbers," he said.
TALIBAN ON THE DEFENCE
Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, said there was "cautious optimism" amid signs the Afghan army had improved over the winter as well as at the impact of the U.S. airstrikes in recent weeks.
"It could change tomorrow, but at this point we believe that the Afghans are successfully on the offence," he said.
Earlier this year, coalition officials estimated the Taliban controlled as much as six percent of Afghan territory but threatened up to a third of the country.
However while they still threaten many provincial areas, they do not appear to have made substantial gains.
"It was clear from the outset that they wanted to seize a provincial capital as well as multiple district capitals and they have not done that," Cleveland said.
Interior ministry figures support the impression of a less active Taliban in recent weeks, but officials stress the change is relative and heavy fighting continues in many regions.
Since the start of the Persian new year on March 21, the Taliban have conducted 1,024 attacks, compared with 1,309 in the same period last year, according to interior ministry figures. Bomb blasts were down at 599 compared to 948 last year and there were four complex attacks against 11 last year.
Afghan and Western security officials believe the Taliban may also be facing financial problems that have limited the effectiveness of their fighters.
In particular, the fact that Haibatullah is a member of the Noorzai tribe, rather than Mansour's Ishaqzai tribe believed to control much of the opium trade, has made it harder to control the flow of drug money from Helmand and other areas, they say.
According to an Afghan security report seen by Reuters, many mid-level Taliban commanders are no longer sending opium levies directly to the leadership council since the death of Mansour and infighting over drug revenue has become an almost daily occurrence in some areas
Taliban commanders reject such an assessment however and dismiss suggestions of leadership problems.
"Our struggle is mainly on religious values and whoever commands, we obey them and respect them," said Mullah Shaheen Sangarmal, a senior Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan. "All leaders cannot be the same, some have military expertise, others are better in politics."
He said there were proper taxation systems in place but added: "Our soldiers do not fight for wages but for Allah."
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Josh Smith; Editing by Tom Heneghan)