NEW DELHI: Afghan officers in the besieged province of Oruzgan said this week that scores of soldiers had surrendered to the Taliban, marking a trend that has been gaining ground across the war torn country.

The latest incident saw 41 soldiers of the Afghan National Army who surrendered at their base -- Mashal base in Chora District -- thereby handing over the base to the militant group. Dost Mohammad Nayab, the spokesperson for the province’s governor said that it was the third Army post in the province to surrender to the Taliban in the span of the last week, with similar reports emerging from the provinces of Kunduz and Helmand as well.

United Nations data supports the stories from the ground, noting that the Taliban have taken more territory this year than in previous year in their 15 year struggle against Western intervention. This is complemented by the worrying fact that the Afghan military is facing its highest casualties, coupled with declining numbers and high attrition rates.

In fact, as a glossed over report submitted to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted earlier in the year, the Taliban now controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since US troops went in in 2001. In the first five months of 2016, the government lost control of nearly 5 percent of its territory to the Taliban since the beginning of the year. The area under Afghan government "control or influence" decreased to 65.6 percent by the end of May from 70.5 percent last year, based on data provided by US forces in Afghanistan.

Conservative estimates indicate that of 407 districts within the 34 provinces, 268 districts were under government control or influence, 36 districts (8.8%) within 15 provinces were under insurgent control or influence, and 104 districts (25.6 %) were “at risk.” Of the 36 districts under insurgent control or influence, nine districts with a population of 524,072 are under insurgent control and 27 districts with a population of 1.98 million are under insurgent influence.

The above are extremely conservative estimates, with the actual figures far more indicative of the Taliban’s growing presence in the war-torn country. Bill Roggio, the editor of The Long War Journal -- an online publication that is tracking Taliban control -- says that although confirmed figures estimate that one-fifth of the country is controlled or contested by the Taliban, in reality the percentage is quite higher -- more to the tune of the Taliban controlling or contesting half the entire country.

“Contested” areas refer to those where the government controls the district centre but the Taliban control large swathes of surrounding territory -- such as the case of Lashkar Gah in the Helmand province. “Control” implies that the Taliban have open control of a district.

Oruzgan Province and its capital Tirin Kot fall also falls within the first category, having been under heavy siege by the militants for the past two months, with Tirin Kot having nearly fallen to the militants four times in the relatively short period. The militants, in turn, are strengthened by defections and surrender. Abdul Karim Karimi, the provincial governor said that such incidents of defection and surrender are occurring in worrying frequency. In September, 20 outposts were abandoned and many of the officers were suspected of changing sides, he said. More recently, on Thursday, 15 soldiers surrendered at Kutod, and a week ago, 20 soldiers surrendered at a base known as Sajawal. Three weeks ago, 70 members of the Afghan Civil Police Order surrendered their based near the capital of Tirin Kot.

The story is equally worrying elsewhere. The Taliban has stepped up violence across the country and seen major advances in two other provinces -- Helmand and Kunduz. Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, is repeatedly under attack, with Afghan forces just about beating back the Taliban that has captured most of the surrounding territory. Kunduz, the capital city of the province with the same name, made headlines when it fell to the militant group last year in their biggest military victory since the 2001 US invasion.

Afghan and NATO forces repeatedly insist that neither Lashkar Gah or Kunduz are at risk of falling to the Taliban, but reports from the ground differ as the Taliban closes in on both cities and controls large swathes of the surrounding territory.

Although the group was beaten back in 2001, they were able to regroup and began capturing territory between 2005 and 2009, with 2013 being a key year. The Taliban capitalised on the rollback of American troops, and in 2014, the capture of Kunduz came as a huge boost to the militant group as it signified their biggest victory since the American invasion.

The reality -- fifteen years after the US invasion, thirteen years after former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared an end to “major combat” in the country; five years after Osama bin Laden was killed; two years after President Obama announced that most American troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2016 (now 2017); and 780 billion USD later -- is that the Taliban is more powerful than it has been in recent times.

(Some of the quotes and statements for this story have been sourced from here).