Any illusions that the Taliban were interested in negotiating a peaceful settlement with the Afghan government and its international partners have been dashed by four days of grueling fighting across the country, during which the Taliban have reportedly occupied Ghazni city and wiped out up to 100 Afghan commandos in a demoralizing blow to Afghan security forces.

Since August 10, the U.S. military has launched at least 24 airstrikes from B-1 bombers, A-10 Thunderbolt II attack craft, AH-64 Apache helicopters, and MQ-9 Reaper drones to support Afghan troops and police fighting to retake Ghazni, killing more than 140 Taliban fighters, Resolute Support spokesman  Army Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell told Task & Purpose

U.S. troops are advising Afghan security forces on clearance operations, combined-arms integration, and other issues, O’Donnell added,  Insisting that Ghazni “remains under government control” except for “isolated and disparate and Taliban forces remaining in the city” despite reports from Afghanistan’s Tolo cable news network that showed footage on Monday of Taliban fighters moving freely about the city.

“The Taliban’s attempts to hide themselves amongst the Afghan populace does pose a threat to the civilian population, who were terrorized and harassed by this ineffective attack and the subsequent execution of innocents, destruction of homes and burning of a market,” O’Donnell said. “Clearly the Taliban have paid no heed to the Afghan peoples’ calls for them to reconcile and join the peace process.”

The Taliban offensive came only three days after Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the Afghan government’s efforts to reconcile with Taliban fighters was the most important part of the U.S. South Asia Strategy.

“No doubt, the strategy has confronted the Taliban with a reason to go to ceasefires that [Afghan] President Ghani has led and offered and to go into discussions,” Mattis told reporters.

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In total, the Afghan government has lost more than 200 troops and police on four different fronts since August 10 the New York Times reports. Taliban fighters have also captured Ajristan district, annihilating the Afghan army commando unit that had been tasked with defending the area.

As of May 2018, about 35% of the Afghan population – nearly 12 million civilians – either lived under the Taliban’s direct rule or in contested areas, according to the latest report to Congress from the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Despite the Afghan government’s goal of bringing 80% of the civilians living in government-controlled territory by the end of 2019, the Taliban continues to control more of the Afghan population.

NBC News has also reported that State Department officials have begun preliminary talks with the Taliban ahead of formal peace negotiations, but neither the U.S. government nor the Taliban would confirm that to Task & Purpose. The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan has denied that the United States is ready to negotiate directly  with the Taliban, but the U.S. government could participate in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

In the meantime, the New York Times has reported that U.S. military commanders are urging Afghan security forces to consolidate their checkpoints by withdrawing from sparsely populated areas. “The relocation of forces doesn’t mean retreat,” said Madina Qasimi, chargé d’affaires and deputy chief of mission at the Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C.

Concentrating Afghan army units will make them less vulnerable to attack and will allow them to counter-attack any Taliban offensives, Qasimi told T&P in a July 31 email  before the Taliban’s recent victories. When Afghan National Police need help defending local areas, the Afghan army will take over.

“No country is able to man every kilometer of its territory by a soldier,” she said. “If soldiers are not present in a district it doesn’t mean it is under Taliban control.”

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