The US is "at the threshold of an agreement" with the Taliban, the US envoy in Afghanistan has said. But the militant Islamist group has stepped up assaults on cities in an apparent attempt to strengthen its hand.
The US and the Taliban could soon reduce fighting and start peace talks, according to the top US diplomat in Afghanistan, even as the insurgent group attacked a second city in the north of the country in as many days.
Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted on Sunday that the two sides were "at the threshold of an agreement," after talks in Doha.
Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, is on the way to the capital, Kabul, to brief the Afghan government on Sunday, after ending marathon talks with the Taliban in Qatar. It is not clear what form the deal would take, but US President Donald Trump has said previously he would like to withdraw most of the 14,000 US soldiers still stationed in the country.
Only hours after Khalilzad's tweet, Taliban forces attacked the Afghan city of Puli Khumri, capital of the northern province of Baghlan. The province's police chief, Jawed Basharat, said gun battles were continuing on the outskirts of the city, though there were no immediate reports of the number of casualties.
"We hear the sound of blasts. The people are so worried," Safdar Mohsini, chief of the Baghlan provincial council, told the AP news agency. "The Taliban are in residential areas fighting with Afghan security forces. We need reinforcements to arrive as soon as possible, otherwise the situation will go from bad to worse."
The new assault came a day after the Taliban attacked Kunduz, another city in the north of the country, with hundreds of fighters overrunning parts of the city. Afghan security forces have said they have since repelled the attack, with the help of US air support, after heavy fighting on multiple fronts.
But there were conflicting accounts of the success of the attack. While Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFP that "Kunduz city has been cleared" and the situation was "back to normal," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said insurgents were holding onto their positions.
Either way, the attack on Kunduz has raised questions about the strength of the Afghan military in certain parts of the country, as the Taliban has continued to extend its influence.
The militant Islamist group, which ruled most of the country until the US-led war began in 2001, has reasserted its power in the last few years and now controls around half of Afghanistan.
The Taliban's renewed attacks have been seen as an attempt to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table as the NATO mission Resolute Support continues.
There are currently around 20,000 foreign troops in the country, including 1,149 German Bundeswehr soldiers, mostly training the Afghan forces.
bk/ng (AFP, AP, Reuters)