'Fight and talk': Afghan war escalates alongside peace push

Combat Obscura Trailer

KABUL (Reuters) - Fighting in Afghanistan has escalated ahead of the usual spring season, as both sides seek to increase leverage in talks on a peace settlement - a gamble that analysts warn could also risk hardening positions.

In March, hundreds of Afghan forces were killed or wounded in heavy clashes in southern, western and northern Afghanistan, according to unofficial reports. Two U.S. special forces were killed near Kunduz, and attacks by both sides caused civilian casualties. U.S. air strikes also accidentally killed Afghan soldiers, in a case of friendly fire.

"Government forces are on the offensive this year. We expect a lot of fighting and obviously casualties," said a senior Afghan security source.

Seasonal trends to fighting have become less defined over the years, as most Taliban now fight near their homes and so do not need to wait for snow to melt in the mountain passes to travel to battlefields, said Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Even so, the Taliban annually announces the start of a spring offensive with fanfare and a name evoking epic importance, such as last year's "Al Khandaq" campaign - named after the Battle of the Trench, fought by the Prophet Mohammad to defend the city of Medina in Islam's early days.

This year, Afghan forces beat the Taliban to naming their offensive, launching a spring operation dubbed "Khaled", an Arabic word for "endless", said the Afghan security source.

"The objective of the operations this year will be to improve intelligence gathering and targeted strikes against the enemy," he said.

The "fight and talk" strategy has been used to describe the Afghan war as far back as the Obama U.S. presidency. One diplomat said Afghanistan's escalation follows a similar path of greater fighting in South Sudan and Colombia ahead of peace settlements for those conflicts.

But for a country 17 years into its latest war, the escalation only adds to a sense of discouragement.

Rising violence also comes with the risk that positions will harden, deferring a settlement, rather than creating urgency that could bring the sides together, said the ICG's Smith.

Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, asked about the more aggressive strategy, said it simply reflected a need to be ready for every possibility.

"If the government and the Taliban agreed on a ceasefire, then the security defense forces will act accordingly," he told reporters in Kabul.

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Kone Faulkner said in an email that there has been "no change" in U.S. policies and in its partnered fighting with Afghan forces.


The latest round of recurring peace talks ended in early March with both U.S. and Taliban officials citing progress. The start of the next round has not been announced, but is expected this month.

The negotiations came amid fierce fighting in several corners of Afghanistan, from Kunduz province in the north to Helmand in the south and Badghis in the northwest.

Some 100 members of Afghan forces were killed in two attacks in Badghis and Helmand. Thirteen civilians, including 10 children, died in a U.S. air strike in Kunduz and more civilians died in a Helmand stadium attack by the Taliban.

Ninety-four members of the Taliban died in a single battle near Kunduz city, according to NATO's Resolute Support Mission, which is supported by troops from 39 countries to train, advise and assist Afghan forces. Fighting in the province killed two U.S. soldiers a day earlier.

The Taliban, meanwhile, met recently to discuss the timing and name of its spring campaign, said a Taliban leader, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Our focus would be more specifically on targeted operations," the leader said. "Our top priority would be minimizing civilian losses."

Some Taliban leaders had suggested simply continuing ongoing operations and awaiting the outcome of peace talks, he said. But the group decided against further delay once Afghan forces launched its Khaled offensive, he said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group would launch its spring offensive in about a month when the weather warms.

One diplomat, whose country supplies soldiers to the Resolute Support mission, said he doubted the Taliban wanted to stop fighting, because it would be difficult to quickly regain the insurgency's fighting capability if its forces dispersed.

"The Taliban's leverage is their military activities," a second diplomat said.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talks.

Increased fighting also heightens concerns about civilian casualties, after a record 3,804 civilians were killed last year, said Anthony Neal, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan.

More conflict has also forced nearly 4,000 people from their homes in the last three months alone, he said.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

SEE ALSO: Leaving Afghanistan: How the first 'Forever War' might finally end.

WATCH NEXT: Jeff Stars A Twitter Beef With The Taliban

Seven of the twelve Soldiers participating in the Army National Guard Military Funeral Honors Level 2 course at Fort Indiantown Gap practice folding the flag April 25. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Zane Craig)

Retired Army Master Sgt. Mark Allen has died 10 years after he was shot in the head while searching for deserter Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan.

Allen died on Saturday at the age of 46, according to funeral information posted online.

Read More Show Less

For U.S. service members who have fought alongside the Kurds, President Donald Trump's decision to approve repositioning U.S. forces in Syria ahead of Turkey's invasion is a naked betrayal of valued allies.

"I am ashamed for the first time in my career," one unnamed special operator told Fox News Jennifer Griffin.

In a Twitter thread that went viral, Griffin wrote the soldier told her the Kurds were continuing to support the United States by guarding tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners even though Turkey had nullified an arrangement under which U.S. and Turkish troops were conducting joint patrols in northeastern Syria to allow the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, to withdraw.

"The Kurds are sticking by us," the soldier told Griffin. "No other partner I have ever dealt with would stand by us."

Read More Show Less

Most of the U.S. troops in Syria are being moved out of the country as Turkish forces and their Arab allies push further into Kurdish territory than originally expected, Task & Purpose has learned.

Roughly 1,000 U.S. troops are withdrawing from Syria, leaving a residual force of between 100 and 150 service members at the Al Tanf garrison, a U.S. official said.

"I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday's edition of CBS News' "Face the Nation."'

Read More Show Less

BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Women affiliated with Islamic State and their children fled en masse from a camp where they were being held in northern Syria on Sunday after shelling by Turkish forces in a five-day-old offensive, the region's Kurdish-led administration said.

Turkey's cross-border attack in northern Syria against Kurdish forces widened to target the town of Suluk which was hit by Ankara's Syrian rebel allies. There were conflicting accounts on the outcome of the fighting.

Turkey is facing threats of possible sanctions from the United States unless it calls off the incursion. Two of its NATO allies, Germany and France, have said they are halting weapons exports to Turkey. The Arab League has denounced the operation.

Read More Show Less

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is warning that it's "absolutely a given" that ISIS will come back if the U.S. doesn't keep up pressure on the group, just one week after President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from northern Syria.

"It's in a situation of disarray right now. Obviously the Kurds are adapting to the Turkish attacks, and we'll have to see if they're able to maintain the fight against ISIS," Mattis said in an interview on NBC's "Meet The Press," set to air on Sunday. "It's going to have an impact. The question is how much?"

Read More Show Less