The United States military says it conducted airstrikes in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz Wednesday to defend government forces who are battling resilient Taliban insurgents for a third day in a row.
The fighting comes as key international and regional stakeholders met in Brussels on the sidelines of a conference and agreed to renew efforts to promote peace and reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Afghan government in control of Kunduz
The NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan said Wednesday the Afghan government still controls Kunduz and there is sporadic fighting within the city as national security forces continue to secure the area.
“U.S. forces today conducted two air engagements to defend friendly forces who were receiving enemy fire and continue to assist [Afghan partners] as needed,” the alliance said in a brief statement.
The Islamist insurgency staged a multi-pronged pre-dawn assault on the key provincial capital Monday and forced its way deep into the center of Kunduz, capturing territory and key installations.
Afghan authorities reported on Tuesday a counter offensive by government forces pushed out Taliban rebels from most parts of the city, killing dozens of enemy fighters. However, they admitted there were still insurgent pockets in civilian neighborhoods on the edges of Kunduz and a clearing operation was underway to overcome them.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, disputed official claims and released videos on Wednesday purportedly showing the insurgents in control of installations and firing at Afghan forces in parts of Kunduz. It was not possible to immediately verify the authenticity of the footage.
Mujahid also dismissed as “propaganda” claims the Taliban suffered heavy casualties or retreated from the city.
Truce efforts to continue
In Brussels Wednesday, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini said she organized a meeting of the foreign ministers of the U.S., China, Pakistan and India along with the U.N. secretary-general to discuss how international and regional players can jointly work to promote the Afghan peace and reconciliation process. She spoke just before the start of the second day of an Afghan donors conference.
Without discussing further details, she emphasized that Afghans will have to lead and own the peace process with the support of the regional players.
“It is also very clear that it has to be a process led by the Afghans within the framework of their constitution on the basis of democracy and it will have to have an element of inclusiveness with the Taliban,” Mohgerini asserted.
She apparently hinted at opposition from certain sections of the Afghan society that do not support peace talks between their government and the Islamist insurgency unless the Taliban stops using violence.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government has previously attempted to engage in peace talks with the Taliban but those efforts have not produced results.
Kabul alleges sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan and that country’s covert support have enabled the Taliban to prolong the war, charges Islamabad rejects as baseless.
Addressing Wednesday’s session of the meeting in Brussels, Secretary Kerry urged the Taliban to lay down their arms and engage in a peace process with Kabul.
"It is a conflict they cannot and will not win on the battlefield. A political settlement negotiated with the Afghan government is the only way to end the fighting, ensure lasting stability and achieve a full drawdown ultimately of international military forces, which is their goal.”
The Taliban has so far refused to hold talks with Kabul unless international forces withdraw from Afghanistan. It reiterated its stance ahead of the Brussels meeting.
“In the opinion of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban), if this conference is truly for the economic well-being of the Afghans, then it is the moral and ethical duty of the participants to decide on ending the occupation before all other matters,” according to a Taliban statement it released to media.