KABUL: Taliban fighters mounted a big attack in eastern Afghanistan on the weekend heralding the start of their annual spring offensive despite ongoing preparations for another round of peace talks, and ahead of planned meetings with Afghan representatives this month.
A Taliban statement said the objective of the Al-Fat’h “victory” offensive was “eradicating occupation, cleansing our Muslim homeland from invasion and corruption, establishing an Islamic system along with defending and serving our believing fellow countrymen.”
Hours after the announcement, a large number of Taliban fighters stormed the Shirzad district center in eastern Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan, putting heavy pressure on government forces, local officials said.
As the weather warmed across Afghanistan, combat had already intensified in recent weeks and hundreds of Afghan troops and civilians were killed, making the official launch of Al-Fath largely symbolic.
Last month, the Afghan government pre-empted the Taliban and mounted its own spring military offensive amid Afghan leaders’ rising frustrations at being left out of the US-led peace talks with the Taliban.
“The Taliban’s spring offensive announcement is reckless,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the American peace envoy, said on Twitter. “It is irresponsible to suggest that an increase in violence is warranted because the government announced a security plan. The Afghan people have clearly voiced their desire for peace.”
Friday’s clashes took place days before the expected resumption of talks between Khalilzad and Taliban officials in Doha.
Representatives from a range of Afghan groups are also expected to be present but the talks will once again exclude the Afghan government, which the Taliban dismiss as a US- appointed “puppet” regime.
International travel restrictions were lifted on members of the Taliban’s negotiating team, including its leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, and the last round of US-Taliban talk had raised hopes of a cease-fire soon.
However, the new offensive underlined how far Afghanistan remains from peace more than 17 years after US-backed forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001.
“Even as large parts of our homeland have been freed from the enemy yet the foreign occupying forces continue exercising military and political influence in our Islamic country,” the Taliban statement said.
In response, the Afghan defense ministry described the Taliban’s annual exercise as “propaganda”, adding that the country’s security forces will be ready with “full preparedness” to deter and counter any attacks.
As well as assurances that civilians would be protected, the Taliban called on Afghan government soldiers and police, who have been suffering thousands of casualties a month, to abandon their posts and join the insurgency.
“We again call on troops working in enemy ranks to shun senseless hostility and futile resistance, to join the Mujahideen and gain guarantees of safeguarding life and wealth,” it said.
The Taliban have made gains as moves toward a possible peace deal continued, with government forces in control of just over half the country, according to US estimates.
US President Donald Trump was reported last year to be planning to withdraw about half of the 14,000 US forces in Afghanistan, adding pressure to secure a peace agreement with the Taliban to prevent the country collapsing.
Waheed Mozhdah, a political analyst and former Taliban official told Arab News that both the government and the Taliban are stepping up their attacks in order to seek concessions on the negotiating table.
“The fact that both sides have declared new operations show that there will be some tough times ahead. While the talks continue, they plan to expand their military activities so they can have an upper hand,” he said.