KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - With the Taliban shrugging off the Afghan government’s latest offers of a cease-fire and negotiations, peace seems as elusive as it has been for decades in this war-battered country, both for troops on the front lines and for civilians facing frequent attacks.
The Taliban have been gaining more ground in their annual spring offensive, ignoring President Ashraf Ghani’s calls for talks. Hoping to end the nearly 17-year war, he had offered unprecedented incentives, including passports for insurgents and their families.
Ghani had also offered to work toward removing international sanctions against the group’s leaders and allowing the Taliban to open official headquarters in the capital, Kabul.
But for that to happen, he stressed, a cease-fire must first be agreed on and the Taliban have to become a political group rather than an armed insurgency.
In June, the Taliban accepted a three-day cease-fire over the Eid al-Fitr holiday that caps the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a first for the group, but rejected a subsequent government call to extend it.
They maintain the only talks they would take part in would be with the United States on their key demand: the withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently reiterated the insurgents’ standing line that “the Americans are the ones continuing the war, supporting our enemies and bombing our country.”
“So, if there are talks, they should be with them (Americans),” Mujahid told The Associated Press over the phone. “Otherwise they won’t have any results.”
Since the start of the year, the Taliban have intensified their attacks. On Jan. 27, a suicide bomber drove an ambulance packed with explosives through a Kabul checkpoint, killing more than 100 people and wounding as many as 235.
The Taliban claimed that attack, as well as another, a week earlier, in which militants stormed a luxury hotel in Kabul, killing 22 people, including 14 foreigners, and setting off a 13-hour gunbattle with security forces.
On Wednesday, two suicide bombers stormed an education department building in eastern Nangarhar province, killing at least 10 people. It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, but both the Taliban and an Islamic State affiliate are active in the province.
At a June gathering in Kabul, the Afghan Ulema Council — an organization of Muslim clerics and scholars — issued an edict against suicide attacks, saying they are “haram,” forbidden under Islamic law.
As the gathering wrapped up and the clerics were about to disband, another suicide bomber struck near the site, killing seven people.
Though that attack was claimed by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, the Taliban issued a statement denouncing the conference and others like it as an “American process” and urged clerics to reject such gatherings.
The Taliban have meanwhile expanded their reach in the countryside. According to Mujahid, they now control 54 out of 388 districts across the country, with five districts seized in this year’s spring offensive.
At least seven out of 14 districts in the southern Helmand province are completely under Taliban control. Analysts say about 80 percent of Helmand — prized for its vast opium poppy fields — has been under Taliban control since 2004, though urban centers had remained under government control.
Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish denies the Taliban’s claim, saying they control just 11 districts in the entire country.
But even Washington’s own Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, says more than half of Afghanistan is either under direct Taliban control or under their influence.
The U.S. and NATO have steadily drawn down forces in recent years from a peak of nearly 150,000, and in 2014 they shifted to a support and counterterrorism role. Afghan security forces, which number 195,000 soldiers and more than 150,000 police, have struggled to combat the insurgency.
The pressure is on to get some sort of peace process off the ground.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used an unannounced trip to Afghanistan on Monday to step up the Trump administration’s calls for peace talks.
“The region and the world are all tired of what is taking place here in the same way that the Afghan people are no longer interested in seeing war,” Pompeo said.
Meanwhile, a conference of religious scholars organized by the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation called for a new cease-fire in Afghanistan. The request, which came at the end of the 57-nations’ two-day meeting Wednesday, had already been dismissed by the Taliban.
NATO leaders will be discussing Afghanistan on Thursday at their summit in Brussels during which the alliance is expected to make a commitment to keep funding the Afghan army and its training mission.
But many rank-and-file Afghan troops are bitter at the dim peace prospects.
“The president gave them (Taliban) a chance and announced a cease-fire, but despite this they attacked our checkpoints, ambushed our forces and nothing changed,” says Mohammad Din, a 27-year-old policeman in northern Kunduz province who has been in uniform for the past seven years.
Abdul Agha, 33, lost his right arm and both eyes in eastern Logar province when his convoy hit a roadside bomb three years ago. The former policeman said he has not been able to see his two daughters, born after the attack.
“It took away my ability to see the brightness and beauty of life,” Agha said.
Many businessmen and investors have abandoned the country, according to Abdul Karim Arefi, deputy director for the Afghanistan Industries and Investment Council.
“People are discouraged, people are not confident enough to import goods and bring in businesses,” Arefi said.