Taliban militants killed at least 26 members of a pro-government militia in north Afghanistan on Saturday, officials said, as the militants and U.S. negotiators prepared for a new round of peace talks in Qatar.
The U.S. officials and the Islamist militants are due to launch a seventh round of talks later on Saturday, in what one U.S. official said was a ‘make-or-break moment’ in efforts to end the 18-year war.
The talks will be led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, who has held six rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar’s capital of Doha since October.
But despite the efforts to find peace, fighting between the Taliban and government forces has not subsided.
In the latest bloodshed, insurgents stormed security posts manned by the pro-government militia in the early hours of Saturday in the Nahrin district of the northern province of Baghlan.
A provincial police spokesman said 26 of the militiamen were killed. A senior defense ministry official in Kabul said the attack was a clear indication that the Taliban wanted to negotiate from a position of strength.
Taliban officials claimed responsibility for the attack, saying their fighters had killed 28 militiamen and wounded 12.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.
The focus of the peace talks has been a Taliban demand for the withdrawal of foreign forces and a U.S. demand the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.
Two other main issues in the process are a ceasefire and talks between the rival Afghan sides – the insurgents and the Western-backed government. But the Taliban have refused to talk to the Afghan government, denouncing it as a puppet.
A senior U.S. official, speaking before the latest violence was reported, said both sides were hoping for progress in Qatar.
“There is a genuine sense of expectation on both sides,” said the official, who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to media.
“It’s a make-or-break moment.”
A Taliban leader in Qatar, who also declined to be identified, said the talks would be crucial.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a trip to Kabul this week the United States was close to finishing a draft agreement with the militants on counter-terrorism assurances, and he hoped a peace pact could be reached by Sept. 1.
The Taliban control or contest half the country, more than at any time since they were ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.
Afghanistan is due to hold a presidential election this year but the militants reject the process and instead want to form an interim government. But President Ashraf Ghani and leaders of opposition political parties have rejected the demand.
Some Afghan officials fear the United States and the Taliban will strike a deal allowing the war-weary United States to end its involvement and get out, leaving government forces to battle on alone.
The militia members killed on Saturday were among thousands of locally recruited fighters who are brought in to hold areas recaptured from the militants, freeing up the army for new operations.
On Friday, the defense ministry said a senior Taliban governor was killed in an air strike in the eastern province of Logar, and a militant commander was killed in clashes with Afghan security forces in Balkh province in the north.
The Taliban dismissed the reports as government propaganda.