As U.S. And Taliban Resume Talks, More Deadly Attacks in Afghanistan – The New York Times

Wounded men in a hospital after a Taliban attack north of Kabul on Saturday.

Wounded men in a hospital after a Taliban attack north of Kabul on Saturday.CreditCreditMehrab Ibrahimi/Associated Press

DOHA, Qatar — Deadly violence surged across Afghanistan as American and Taliban officials started a seventh round of peace talks on Saturday, with high hopes for a breakthrough.

The talks, held in the Qatari capital, Doha, aim to hammer out a provisional schedule for American troop withdrawal in exchange for Taliban guarantees that international terror groups will not be allowed to operate on Afghan soil. Such an agreement is seen as a crucial step toward opening negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the country’s political future.

A spate of attacks on Friday and Saturday that killed nearly 300 fighters from both sides, according to claims by the Taliban and the Afghan government, was a sign that optimism at the negotiating table might not translate to an immediate reduction in violence, as the rivals seek to use battlefield gains for leverage. Casualty numbers provided by both sides are often exaggerated and difficult to verify.

One of the deadliest episodes took place in northern Baghlan province, where the Taliban killed at least 25 members of a government militia during an overnight attack on their outposts in Nahrin district. Residents and officials described a large number of insurgents amassing for a surprise assault that routed the government militia and the reinforcements that arrived at the scene.

“When I arrived at 3 in the morning, it was a gruesome scene,” said Noor Agha Nizami, a resident of Nahrin. “You couldn’t see a single person alive.”

As the peace talks test the true willingness of both sides tor compromise, fighting has intensified. The Afghan forces, supported by the U.S. military, have ramped up commando raids and airstrikes to increase pressure on the Taliban.

In Doha, American diplomats — led by the special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad — and Taliban officials appeared relaxed when they wrapped up the first day of talks around 9:30 p.m. at a diplomatic club of the Qatari foreign ministry under tight security. Both sides, as well as Qatari mediators, suggested the first day of the latest round had been largely smooth.

Even as American and Taliban negotiators made progress on the draft agreement, negotiations were stalled over how to move to the next stage — getting the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government.

Agreeing on a definition of “terrorism” took time in the negotiations, an early indication of how difficult and emotional the Taliban would be in the talks. A recent United Nations report said the Taliban, which it estimated to have about 60,000 active fighters and about half as many facilitators, “continue to be the primary partner for all foreign terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan,” with the exception of the Islamic State.

The Taliban has long refused to acknowledge the Afghan government, and has said it would only speak to Afghan officials after the Americans announce their withdrawal. The Afghan government, on the other hand, has insisted that any negotiations be conducted directly with it.

Efforts in April to take a step toward such direct talks, by including Afghan government officials in a delegation representing a wide cross-section of society, faltered as the list of representatives from Kabul grew to more than 200 people, and the Taliban called it too heavy on government representation.

In recent weeks, Germany has been involved in the process, helping Qatar, the host of the talks, prepare for an intra-Afghan meeting comprised a smaller, more manageable group.

If the U.S. and Taliban finalize their agreement on troop withdrawal and counterterrorism guarantees, Western officials said, a group of about 60 Afghans could meet with Taliban representatives early next month for what would be an icebreaker, before more direct negotiations at a later stage with the Afghan government.

Source: As U.S. And Taliban Resume Talks, More Deadly Attacks in Afghanistan – The New York Times

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