Two local officials, including a deputy police chief, were assassinated Saturday in Paktika province. No one claimed responsibility, but Afghan officials believe armed groups linked to the Taliban are behind a string of similar attacks.
The peace talks, launched last week between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha, were hailed as a historic opportunity to end decades of war. But while the sides have met a handful of times, they haven’t agreed on the basic format of the negotiations, including which issues will be discussed and in what order.
The continuing violence is “a big concern for us,” said Faraidoon Khwazoon, a spokesman for the Afghan government delegation. Khwazoon said the delegation will include a cease-fire in its agenda because all Afghans want to see violence reduced.
But Taliban leaders have said they will agree to a cease-fire only after all other issues are resolved and a political settlement is reached. If talks drag on, deadly attacks like those on Saturday are likely to persist.
Statements from both delegations stressing the need for “patience” suggest neither side expects a quick resolution.
The Afghan airstrikes Saturday followed Taliban attacks on Afghan military positions in Khanabad district east of Kunduz city Saturday morning, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The ministry said more than 30 Taliban fighters were killed and “initial reports indicate no harm was inflicted upon civilians.” It added that it was aware of allegations of civilian casualties.
A Defense Ministry spokesman said Sunday that the incident was being investigated and “a team has been formed.” Afghan government investigations into allegations of civilian casualties are generally cursory, and the findings are rarely made public.
Abdul Ahad Torial Kakar, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said the first government strike Saturday targeted a gathering of Taliban fighters. He said civilians rushed to the site to extinguish the resulting fire only to be hit by a second strike. Kakar said 10 civilians were killed, 10 wounded and five remain missing.
The spokesman for the Kunduz governor said 17 civilians were killed and 15 wounded. The civilians who were killed in the second strike were attempting to retrieve the bodies of Taliban fighters killed in the first, spokesman Esmatullah Moradi said.
The Taliban said the airstrikes were “unprovoked,” launched in “an area where there were no military activities,” and killed only civilians.
Aziz Aziz, a local politician from Paktika, said Taliban fighters are launching more attacks on government outposts, carrying out more assassinations and increasing pressure on district centers.
“Violence continues even during the talks,” he said. “And it has not been reduced.”
The “Taliban are sending a message that they will kill people, oppress them, and that they [believe they] can take the government by force,” he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that violence has intensified in recent weeks, but he blamed Afghan government “provocations.” He said government forces are attempting to push into Taliban-controlled territory, “compelling” Taliban fighters to retaliate.
The Afghan government and the Taliban have dramatically different expectations for a postwar Afghanistan. The government delegation wants to preserve elections and civil rights, while the Taliban leaders want the country ruled with a strict interpretation of Islamic law that could do away with elections and equal rights for women and minorities.
Haq Nawaz Khan and Aziz Tassal contributed to this report.