The United States special envoy to Afghanistan has met the Afghan president in Kabul to brief him on Washington’s peace negotiations with the Taliban, as the armed group followed their weekend assault on Afghan security forces in several provinces of the country.
President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman confirmed the meeting took place on Sunday night at the presidential palace in the capital, shortly after the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad arrived from Qatar following the conclusion of the ninth round of talks with the Taliban.
The palace would soon release details about the meeting, Sediq Sediqqi said.
Khalilzad over the weekend said the US and the Taliban are “at the threshold of an agreement” – even as fighting between the group and government forces in northern Afghanistan intensified.
The Taliban on Sunday attacked Pul-e Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province, just a day after hundreds of its fighters overran parts of Kunduz, a strategic city and the capital of the eponymous province that the group has twice come close to taking in recent years.
On Monday, Afghan local media reported attacks were ongoing in the provinces of Kunduz, Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh, Farah and Herat. The Kabul-Baghlan and Baghlan-Kunduz highways were blocked since the weekend attacks on Kunduz and Baghlan provinces.
While Kunduz city was calm after clearance operations that had driven out the attackers, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said fighters had taken up positions in two areas of Pul-e Khumri and were battling Afghan security forces.
Afghan forces killed five gunmen and arrested two fighters during the clearance operation in Pul-e-Khumri city, Rahimi said.
There was also fighting in the central province of Ghazni and Laghman province, east of Kabul, Taliban and government officials said.
A blast at a football stadium late on Sunday killed the mayor of the northern city of Faizabad while a roadside bomb killed at least eight people, including children, travelling in a car in northern Balkh province.
Another roadside bomb in western Farah province killed two women, four children and two policemen, local police officials said.
Local officials in Faryab province, on the northwest border, said an air raid killed at least 12 civilians, including eight children but the defence ministry denied the report.
Taliban’s position of strength
Amid high expectations that the US-Taliban talks will end with an agreement, the latest fighting underlined the Taliban’s apparent determination to go into any deal from a position of strength on the battlefield.
Khalilzad gave no details of the deal, which is expected to see thousands of US troops withdrawn from Afghanistan in exchange for guarantees by the Taliban not to allow the country to be used as a base for rebel attacks abroad.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said both sides were in discussions to finalise technical issues.
“We are on the verge of ending the invasion and reaching a peaceful solution for Afghanistan,” Shaheen said on Twitter.
The agreement would not on its own end the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, but would allow the start of so-called “intra-Afghan” peace talks.
However, it was not clear whether the Taliban would agree to talk directly with Ghani’s government, which they consider an illegitimate foreign-imposed regime.
Some Taliban officials have said they would only agree to talk to Afghan officials in a private capacity, not as representatives of the state, and they remain opposed to presidential elections scheduled for September 28.
It was also unclear whether the agreement would cover the full withdrawal of all 14,500 US troops from Afghanistan or how long a pullout would take.
More than 30,000 foreign troops are in the country, most serving as part of a NATO-led mission to train and assist Afghan forces.
Thousands of US troops are also engaged in a separate counterterrorism mission fighting armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
Suicide bombings and combat operations have continued throughout the talks and the fighting in the north underlined the vulnerability of large parts of Afghanistan, where the Taliban control more territory than at any time since being overthrown by a US-led campaign in 2001.
According to the United Nations, 3,804 civilians – including more than 900 children – were killed and 7,000 wounded in 2018, the deadliest year for non-combatants in the conflict.