ISLAMABAD - The Taliban announced Friday its annual spring offensive in Afghanistan amid a U.S.-led push for a negotiated settlement to the 18-year-old war with the Islamist insurgency.
The offensive dubbed “Al-Fath,” which means “victory” in Arabic, commenced throughout the country early Friday morning with an objective to establish an “Islamic system” in an Afghanistan “cleansed from American occupation,” said a Taliban statement.
Observers, however, say the announcement is largely symbolic because insurgents in recent years have not eased battlefield activities during winter and have staged major attacks against Afghan forces as well as their U.S.-led NATO partners.
Afghan Defense Ministry officials swiftly rejected the insurgent offensive as “mere propaganda,” saying the government resolved to defeat it through ongoing spring operations.
More than 200 killed
Within the past week alone, fighting and Taliban bomb attacks across several provinces have killed more than 200 people, including three U.S. soldiers, and wounded many more.
The Taliban is believed to be controlling or contesting half of Afghanistan’s 407 districts.
“Our Jihadi obligation has not yet ended. Even as large parts of our homeland have been freed from the enemy yet the foreign occupying forces continue exercising military and political influence in our Islamic country,” the Taliban said in its Friday’s declaration.
Washington’s envoy for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been leading bilateral peace talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar since late last summer amid expectations the process would lead to a reduction in insurgent hostilities this year.
?Taliban negotiators freed from UN sanctions
U.S. and Taliban negotiators are set to resume meetings in late April to try to conclude discussions on a preliminary draft agreement about a timeline for foreign forces to exit Afghanistan in exchange for insurgent assurances they would disallow terrorists from using the Afghan soil for attacks against other countries.
In a significant development Thursday to further the Afghan peace effort, a Taliban spokesman confirmed to VOA that all 15 insurgent leaders who are based in Qatar and are negotiating peace with U.S. interlocutors have been temporarily removed from a United Nations sanctions list. Zabihullah Mujahid said the sanctions have been suspended for nine months.
The insurgent group has long maintained the international financial and travel restrictions hamper its efforts to engage with Afghans and officials in foreign countries to discuss a political way out of the war.
Taliban officials said the U.S. envoy had promised in a recent round of talks that he would request an easing of U.N. sanctions against the insurgent negotiating team. There was no immediate U.S. or U.N reaction, nor any Afghan government comment.