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Afghan Taliban mounts new attacks as peace talks continue

Men identified as Taliban fighters or sympathizers wave at a convoy of Afghan military forces during a June 2018 cease-fire in Logar province in Afghanistan. The country became the world's deadliest terrorism hot spot in 2017, according to Australia's Institute for Economics and Peace think tank.

J.P. LAWRENCE/STARS AND STRIPES

By ELTAF NAJAFIZADA | Bloomberg News | Published: January 13, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan (Tribune News Service) –– Taliban militants have accelerated attacks across Afghanistan in a show of strength as the U.S. pushes forward with negotiations to end the 17-year-long war.

The increased violence comes as accelerated peace talks and reports that the U.S. plans to significantly cut troop levels in Afghanistan. The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has stepped up efforts to bring the Taliban to negotiations, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Russia and Iran involved in discussions with the Taliban over the past few months, either with the U.S. or in parallel. Neither track has involved Afghan government representatives.

The insurgents have been battling Afghan forces in the north of the strife-torn country for territorial gain in the past week. They’re fighting now in or on the outskirts of Balkh, Takhar, Baghlan, Kunduz and Sar-e-Pul provinces, according to local government officials.

Local military officials refused to provide exact numbers of casualties. In four separate email statements sent by Taliban spokesmen Zabihullah Mujahed and Qari Yousef Ahmadi, the Taliban claimed responsibility for all attacks, adding that it took over several villages, destroyed several bases of Afghan forces, took weapons and ammunition and killed or wounded more than 150 soldiers. The Taliban also sustained heavy casualties, local officials said.

President Donald Trump last year ordered his government to initiate peace talks with the insurgents to end the war in which more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers have died and that has cost the nation more than $900 billion.

The violence also killed more than 10,000 Afghan civilians in 2017 alone. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said late last year that more than 28,000 Afghan soldiers were killed since 2015, shortly after he took office.

The U.S. military command in Afghanistan described the recent spate of attacks as “the normal ebb and flow of battle” and noted in an email that Afghan forces had “held the initiative, especially in the last several weeks.”

The insurgents control or contest half of Afghanistan — more territory than anytime since they were toppled by the allied forces in 2001 following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

Khalilzad has failed to reach an agreement in his three rounds of talks since August with the insurgents. Up for discussion have been the U.S. troop withdrawal, a ceasefire, Taliban prisoners, United Nations sanctions, an Afghan constitutional amendment and an agreement to continue discussions.

The group has repeatedly refused to talk to Ghani’s administration before the withdrawal of the foreign forces. Last month, Ghani sent his negotiating team to the U.A.E. in hopes to meet with to the group, but the Taliban refused to see them and they returned to Kabul after four days in Abu Dhabi.

Khalilzad hopes to broker a deal before the country’s presidential election July 20, which was delayed for six months because of technical, logistical and security issues. Ghani confirmed that he plans to seek re-election to end the war.

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