Dozens of Afghan Forces and Taliban Killed as Violence Spikes Ahead of Talks
By Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal
April 10, 2019
The New York Times
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Dozens of Afghan forces and Taliban fighters were killed in overnight fighting across Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, as violence intensified ahead of another round of peace efforts to end the 18-year-old war.
The worst of the attacks were in Kandahar Province, where the Taliban targeted an Afghan border post late Monday, killing at least four service members, according to local officials. Kasim Azad, the secretary of Kandahar’s police chief, confirmed the attack and said four members of the border forces were killed.
But other officials put the death toll as high as 18 and said that at least eight other people were unaccounted for, possibly taken by the Taliban. Mr. Azad said 17 Taliban fighters had also been killed. The Taliban claimed to have overrun the border post, but the Afghan defense ministry said all of the attacked border posts remained under government control.
The violence comes a day after three American soldiers were killed near Bagram Air Base outside Kabul. Although Defense Department officials initially said that a contractor had also been killed in the attack, on Tuesday they revised their account to say that the contractor had only been wounded.
That attack brought the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan this year to seven. About 14,000 United States troops are currently in Afghanistan, though President Trump has asked administration officials to prepare for cutting that number in half.
Fighting has intensified despite a call on Sunday from Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States special envoy for Afghan peace, for a reduction in violence in the coming weeks as another round of talks are expected to get underway in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Those talks will be the first time the Taliban meet with Afghan government representatives in recent years. However, they are attending as part of a larger group representing all sects of the Afghan society rather than as an official government delegation.
Despite several rounds of negotiations with American diplomats, where the two sides are close to reaching a deal, the Taliban have so far refused direct negotiations with the Afghan government. American and Afghan officials hope the informal meeting can pave the way for direct negotiations between the two sides.
The violence on Monday is part of a deadly fight in the northwestern province of Badghis for the control of the Bala Murghab district, which falls on an important smuggling route along the border with Turkmenistan. The district has faced heightened pressure in recent months and it has been almost a week since the Taliban began a major offensive there.
At least 30 Afghan forces were killed in the initial days of fighting and the casualties have mounted since. The Afghan defense ministry said that more than 100 Taliban fighters have been killed — although those numbers could not be independently verified and the Afghan government is known to exaggerate enemy casualties.
The struggle of the Afghan forces has exposed their vulnerabilities ahead of what is expected to be a tough fighting season as both sides aim for battlefield gains that will increase their leverage in the peace talks.
It has also raised concerns that Afghan forces will surrender or flee under Taliban pressure rather than fight, particularly with the Taliban offering them better treatment for doing so. Last month, the Taliban captured about 150 Afghan forces after they fled to Turkmenistan, which turned them back.
Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar, and Mujib Mashal from Kabul. Mohammed Saber contributed reporting from Herat, and Najim Rahim from Mazar e Sharif.