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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Afghan government shaken by bloodstained week after Taliban and ISIS attacks

Hundreds of troops, police and civilians have been killed just weeks after Eid ceasefire

An Afghan Shiite girl carries the coffin of a victim who were killed in a suicide attack the previous day in Kabul. AFP
An Afghan Shiite girl carries the coffin of a victim who were killed in a suicide attack the previous day in Kabul. AFP

Three days of bloodshed – spurred by several deadly attacks and an ongoing militant offensive – have shaken the internationally-backed government in Kabul just weeks after an Eid ceasefire offered a glimmer of hope for a resolution to the country’s 17-year conflict.

After battles across the country, Thursday’s assault on an intelligence agency training centre in Kabul was just one more attack in a flurry that has drawn Ashraf Ghani’s Western-backed government into a battle to not only defend the Afghan people, but the very population centres under its control.

Taliban militants struck at will across the country, storming parts of a key city and overrunning two military bases elsewhere. The violence appears to represent a willingness from the group to push the United States to the table in an effort for long-wanted negotiations.

The death toll is thought to run to hundreds of troops, police and civilians, while 37 were also killed in the ISIS suicide bombing of a class for Shia students studying for college entrance exams.

In the largest Taliban attack, hundreds of fighters stormed parts of Ghazni, barely 80 miles south of Kabul, and spent five days in the city before they were forced out.

Taliban fighters stormed army bases in Faryab and Baghlan and dozens of soldiers were killed in each attack.

Dr Ghani's government has appeared complacent and unable to cope, apparently failing to heed warnings of impending attacks and leaving isolated units to their doom.

Thomas Ruttig, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said the attacks, only weeks after it emerged the Taliban had met United States envoys for preliminary talks in Qatar, appeared to be a jockeying for position in a bloody extension to negotiations.

After America had said it wanted to put the Taliban under pressure ahead of any talks, the militant movement had said Ghazni instead put the pressure on Washington.

The bloodshed was the outcome of the policy both the Taliban and US had decided on, he said, to talk and fight at the same time.

“I am afraid that is the logic of these kinds of wars and it does not necessarily mean that negotiations are impossible,” Mr Ruttig told The National.

The attacks may not even necessarily derail hopes of a repeat ceasefire for Eid Al Adha next week, the analyst said. But any ceasefire had less long-term significance than the US decision to meet the Taliban and start to discuss conditions for troop withdrawal.

The Taliban appear unwilling to give up and the past week had shown they had a position of strength.

“That's why they may be willing to talk because they see they have the upper hand at the moment,” Mr Ruttig said.

But the reality for both sides remained that neither could force a military victory.

The past week's fighting, followed by a withdrawal in Ghazni, showed the Taliban has “reach, they are strong, they have the initiative, but they cannot win,” he added.

While the Taliban have appeared strong, Dr Ghani's government appeared more and more weak, said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based analyst.

Infighting among the ranks of the national unity government and micro-management by Dr Ghani's palace were paralysing the country.

“We know that the Taliban haven't gained access to any game-changing weapons. They are only exploiting weakness within the Afghan government,” said Mr Mir.

The cold logic of fighting and talking means more attacks are likely as the Taliban tries to put itself in as strong a position as possible.

“By escalating the violence, the Taliban could be looking to gain an upper hand and negotiate more from a stronger position over the Afghan government and the foreign forces,” said Mr Hekmatullah Azamy, of Kabul's Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies.

Gen Ikramuddin Sare, police commander for the Baghlan-e-Markazi district where around 40 soldiers and police died on Wednesday, said he was still hopeful for a ceasefire.

“I am aware of how much my countrymen want a break in this constant fighting. We have been at war for almost 40 years and I do agree that ceasefire could be helpful,” he said.

“But I also feel that certain conditions need to be set for the Taliban. For instance, they shouldn’t be allowed to enter the cities carrying guns or other weapons. They also shouldn't be allowed to carry their flags and they shouldn’t gather in large groups”.

But as Kabul on Thursday buried young men and women killed in the suicide bombing, the prospect of peace negotiations and ceasefires seemed cruelly remote to many.

"Death to your ceasefire and death to your ghost peace talks," one mourner told reporters in the capital.

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