HERAT, AFGHANISTAN - Afghan security forces suffered scores of casualties in heavy fighting, officials said Monday, as Taliban militants step up battlefield pressure while seeking a political settlement with the United States.
About 50 security forces were killed in attacks late Sunday by Taliban fighters on checkpoints around the southwestern city of Farah and nearby districts that triggered hours of fighting, regional officials said.
At the same time, about 25 Afghan commandos were killed in the central province of Ghazni, where the Taliban have been battling militia from the mainly Shiite Hazara community in the districts of Malistan and Jaghori, a conflict colored by hostility between ethnic Hazaras and Pashtuns.
"Fresh troops have been sent to Malistan and Jaghori but the people are also cooperating and have stood up against the insurgents," Army General Chief of Staff Mohammad Sharif Yaftali told reporters.
Some commandos were killed or wounded, he added, but he gave no details.
U.S. commanders have said they expect the Taliban to step up military efforts to secure the best possible position while they maintain contacts with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad aimed at opening peace negotiations.
Khalilzad, an Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, met President Ashraf Ghani and other officials over the weekend, in his latest round of meetings following an initial meeting last month with Taliban officials in Qatar.
But Sunday's fighting underscored the pressure on Afghanistan's overstretched security forces, suffering from their highest level of casualties ever, estimates from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission show.
The government no longer releases exact casualty figures, but officials say at least 500 men are being killed each month and hundreds more wounded, a tally many consider an underestimate.
Ghazni, briefly overrun by the Taliban in August, sits on the highway linking Kabul, the capital, to the major southern city of Kandahar. It is also a gateway into the mountainous central provinces of Hazarajat, home mainly to Hazara people.
Security officials said heavy fighting in Malistan took a major toll on commandos unfamiliar with the terrain after they came under Taliban attack.
The Ghazni fighting prompted demonstrations in Kabul and Ghazni by Hazaras demanding more government help.
Late on Sunday, Taliban fighters also attacked Farah city as well as checkpoints in the nearby districts of Khaki Safed and Bala Buluk, said Shah Mahmood Rahimi, deputy head of the Farah Provincial Council.
He said 45 Afghan local police were killed in the fighting, along with five soldiers.
Local police spokesman Mohibullah Mohib confirmed attacks on several security checkpoints, adding that a Taliban commander and five of his fighters were killed.
Remote and sparsely populated Farah, crisscrossed by smuggling routes into neighboring Iran, is under heavy pressure from the Taliban, who control much of the countryside and who briefly overran the city in May.