Fight and talk: Facing negotiations, Taliban almost took key Afghan city

Khan Agha has endured years of violence in Kunduz, but it was the Taliban’s attack on the strategic city in northeastern Afghanistan, as the government and insurgents were preparing for historic peace talks, that unnerved him.

“Like me, the majority of Kunduz residents are living in fear,” Agha, a 46-year-old driver, told Reuters. “Looking at what’s going on, anything could happen at any time.”

The Taliban offensive, encircling and almost seizing Kunduz late last month, came just weeks before the Kabul government sat down with their sworn enemies in Doha on Saturday to start historic talks aimed at ending 19 years of war that has killed and wounded more than 100,000 civilians.

The opening ceremony for the talks in the Qatari capital, replete with calls for peace from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a grand hotel and a host of dignitaries on video link urging a ceasefire, contrasted sharply with the recent violence on the ground in Kunduz.

Just hours after those talks started, Taliban and Afghan government forces clashed across Afghanistan, officials said, underscoring the uphill challenge of ending the long war. The most intense of those clashes on Saturday were in Kunduz, where Taliban again jostled with security forces for control of key highways, and the Afghan military deployed air and artillery strikes.

Agha, stranded outside the city of 270,000 for four days during last month’s larger attack and unable to reach his family on his way back from a delivery, has since stockpiled three months’ worth of food in his small home.

A Reuters examination of the little-reported August offensive – the worst since 2015, when Kunduz briefly fell to the Taliban – shows how the insurgents have recently raised pressure on this strategic urban centre, a gateway in the north to mineral-rich provinces and to central Asia, and a hub for transportation and drug-smuggling.

The Taliban deny the Kunduz attack, saying their fighters only attacked bases in retaliation for troops firing on nearby areas.

“From the start of the year we never had plans of large attacks on any big city for one reason, and that is the peace process,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. “Attacking large cities can damage this process.”

Though it ultimately failed, the brazen attempt to take a strategic urban centre and the continuing pressure shows the Taliban are pursuing a fight-and-talk strategy, largely ignoring the international pleas to temper the violence and agree on a ceasefire.

“The scale of ambition to expand territorial control has not ebbed,” said a senior Western diplomat. “They want their fighters to stay active on the ground – it is a key concern ahead of talks as primary trust and confidence-building depends on a reduction in violence.”

The Taliban’s muscular action comes just as the United States rapidly draws down its troops in Afghanistan, in line with President Donald Trump’s promises to end America’s longest war. A February pact between Washington and the Taliban set May 2021 as the date for the final pullout, subject to certain security guarantees.

U.S. troop numbers are expected to fall to 4,500 by November from over 100,000 in 2011.

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