Taliban and Afghan government forces clashed across Afghanistan hours after the start of long-awaited peace talks in Doha on Saturday, underscoring the uphill challenge of settling a 19-year insurgency, Reuters reported from Kabul Sunday.
Talks between the two sides were to begin shortly after a U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, but began only over the weekend after months of delays, caused in part by continuing Taliban offensives in the war-torn country.
"With the start of intra-Afghan talks we were expecting the Taliban to reduce the number of their attacks, but unfortunately their attacks are still going in high numbers," Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that they attacked a convoy of Afghan forces that had arrived to launch an operation along a key highway in Kunduz. He added that security forces carried out air and artillery strikes on Saturday night in the provinces of Baghlan and Jowzjan.
In Doha, the two sides are expected to debate a comprehensive ceasefire and discuss what the Taliban's role in governing Afghanistan should be, among other topics.
Talks were supposed to begin in March. After a brief ceasefire and the release of 5,000 Taliban detainees from Afghan prisons, talks were rescheduled for Aug. 17. Then the Afghan government refused to release its last 320 Taliban prisoners unless the Taliban released more Afghan soldiers from its prisons, leading to another delay.
The commencement on Sept. 12 of the "intra-Afghan" talks represents a significant step forward in the effort to end decades of war in Afghanistan, but peace is far from guaranteed, according to Sher Jan Ahmadzai, Director, Center for Afghanistan Studies, University of Nebraska Omaha.
Some analysts and diplomats have raised concerns that the Taliban is entering talks with the upper hand as violence has escalated in recent months in the war-torn nation even as the United States withdraws troops, Reuters said.
Tellingly, six Taliban prisoners accused of involvement in the killings of American, French and Australian nationals were released from Afghan custody on Thursday and flown to Doha, Qatar, paving the way for formal peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
The six men who landed in Doha are the last of thousands of Taliban inmates released by the Afghan government in a prisoner swap process that was the central issue delaying peace talks for months. The U.S.-Taliban deal called for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters in exchange for 1,000 members of their security forces.
Three of the six prisoners transferred to Doha are accused of involvement in what are known as insider attacks against U.S. troops. The assaults, conducted by Taliban infiltrators of the Afghan security forces against foreign forces, sowed deep distrust and undermined the U.S.-led military and training missions there, Washington Post said.
The talks are a key foreign policy objective for the Trump administration as it looks to withdraw U.S. troops from the country, Washington Post said adding:
The Trump administration has applied pressure to both the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin talks immediately. Despite objections from U.S. allies to the transfer of the men accused of killing the foreign nationals, U.S. officials did not raise formal concerns.
Launching official, direct negotiations is one of the few demands of the deal signed between the United States and the Taliban, which sets a timeline for the full withdrawal of U.S. forces. The deal also calls on the Taliban to pledge to cut ties with international terrorist groups. Despite concerns that the group is not upholding that pledge, President Trump is pushing for further troop reductions, Washington Post added.
The top American commander in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie Jr., said Monday that troop levels in Afghanistan would drop to 4,500 by November.