The Afghan government has shown its displeasure over reports that a Taliban delegation visited China, saying Beijing should not provide “a platform” to groups that are involved in the killing of Afghans.
Afghan security forces meanwhile have retaken control of a southern district they briefly lost to Taliban insurgents. American military officials confirmed to VOA they also carried out airstrikes in support of local forces in the overnight counter-offensive.
Taliban negotiators are reported to have visited China on July 18-22 at the invitation of the Chinese government to discuss the current situation in Afghanistan. The delegation was reportedly led by Abbas Stanakzai, the head of Islamist insurgency’s so-called political office in Qatar.
Afghanistan and China enjoy “strong friendly relations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shakib Mustaghani told VOA when asked for his reaction. “We believe our friends in China will always prefer to maintain state-to-state relations and will not provide a platform to those groups that are responsible of the killing of the people of Afghanistan,” Mustaghani noted.
Beijing has not yet commented on whether it received and entertained the Taliban delegation.
But senior members of the insurgency on condition of anonymity have confirmed and released some details of the meetings in China, saying the Taliban regularly holds such talks with countries it maintains “good terms.”
The main spokesman for the insurgency, Zabihullah Mujahid, when contacted by VOA on Sunday for comments, said he “can neither confirm nor deny” the visit to China.
China is part of a four-nation group along with Pakistan, the United States and Afghanistan that tried to restart talks between Kabul and Taliban officials earlier this year. But those efforts could not succeed beyond exploratory talks and critics do not anticipate resumption of the peace process in the foreseeable future.
Beijing’s engagement in Afghan peace efforts stems from concerns that continued instability in Afghanistan could spill over into its far western restive Xinjiang region where separatist violence blamed on indigenous Islamist extremists has killed hundreds of people in recent years.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has stepped up battlefield attacks against Afghan security forces and made territorial gains, particularly in the southern province of Helmand.
On Sunday, provincial authorities confirmed Afghan security forces backed by U.S. military airstrikes have retaken control of the Khanashin district, a day after it fell to insurgents, and inflicted heavy casualties on the retreating Taliban.
Local officials requesting anonymity also confirmed killing of at least 24 Afghan security personal in the fighting.
“I can confirm that U.S. forces did conduct multiple air strikes in Helmand yesterday [Saturday] in support of our Afghan partners. The current operations in Helmand are still ongoing, so for operational security reasons I really can't discuss the details at this time,” U.S. military spokesman Michael Lawhorn told VOA.
Helmand is Afghanistan’s largest of the all the 34 provinces and is a key poppy producing and smuggling region bordering Pakistan. United Nations estimates about 90 percent of the world’s heroin is produced from Helmand opium and income from the illegal drugs is funding the Taliban insurgency.
Fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban rebels was also raging in at least two other districts in Helmand and in parts of northern as well as northeastern provinces of Faryab, Balkh and Badakhshan.
A U.S government oversight agency informed the U.S. Congress on Friday that Afghan security forces lost approximately five percent of the country’s territory to the Taliban in the first five months of this year, including several districts in Helmand.