ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - The Taliban has launched an attack on a second Afghan city in two days, even as a ninth round of negotiations with the United States on ending the war wind down.
Officials in Baghlan province said the insurgents were on the outskirts of the capital.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said its fighters stormed Afghan security posts around Pul-e-Khumri and they are now inside the provincial capital.
“The governor house is under siege and enemy has sustained heavy losses,” Mujahid said.
Saturday the Taliban staged a “large-scale” predawn attack on Kunduz, the capital of the province with the same name, from several directions, triggering an intense day of gun battles with Afghan government forces.
Meanwhile, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad announced Sunday via Twitter he has concluded the ninth round of peace talks with Taliban in Qatar and was leaving for Kabul to brief Afghan leaders in his discussions with the insurgents. Members of Khalilzad team remain in Doha and some technician level talks will take place Sunday, said Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen.
“We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honorable & sustainable peace and a unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies, or any other country,” Khalilzad tweeted.
The Taliban insists its fighters remain in control of positions they captured in a Kunduz, while Afghan officials say government forces defeated the attackers. All communications remain cut off since the insurgent attacked Kunduz before dawn Saturday, making it difficult to find out fighting details from independent sources.
Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said Sunday that the previous day’s fighting in Kunduz killed 56 insurgents, while a massive suicide bombing in the center of the city killed 20 Afghan security forces and five civilians. He added that the violence also injured 85 people.
A Taliban spokesman claimed its fighters “killed and wounded dozens” of Afghan security forces and captured territory, though it was not possible to verify claims made by either side. The fighting disrupted power supplies and cell phone services to Kunduz, cutting off all communications.
The Afghan city, located on a key highway providing easy access to much of northern border provinces, has come under Taliban attack repeatedly since 2015 and was briefly held twice by the insurgents. The Taliban has since taken control of much of the province.
US commander arrives
The Taliban advances prompted top Afghan security officials to arrive in Kunduz later in the day along with the U.S. commander of international forces, General Scott Miller. A Kabul government spokesman, Feroz Bashari, said the officials will “lead clearance operations” against the insurgents. He also tweeted a picture of Miller with other officials from a meeting in the embattled city.
The Taliban is pressing the United States and its NATO allies to pull their troops from Afghanistan, while Washington wants counterterrorism guarantees from the insurgents, a nationwide cease-fire and the Taliban’s participation in intra-Afghan talks to permanently end hostilities in the country.
President Donald Trump said this week he plans to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from the current level of roughly 14,000. He would not discuss the fate of the residual force.
The Taliban has not responded to Trump’s latest statement, which runs counter to repeated insurgent assertions that in ongoing peace talks with the U.S., an understanding has been reached on a complete withdrawal of foreign troops.