Afghan government security forces killed at least 51 Taliban fighters in the southern province of Kandahar, the latest flare-up in violence as the two sides pursue peace talks in Qatar while simultaneously competing for territory at home.
The Afghan ministry of defense said the strikes against Taliban positions in five districts on Saturday night, a mixture of ground and air assaults that also destroyed four Taliban ammunition depots, were in response to insurgent attacks.
A delegation comprising the army, provincial police and the Kandahar governor were also investigating allegations from local residents that government airstrikes had killed civilians in Arghandab district, the ministry said. The Taliban said 13 civilians had been killed in an airstrike, while a spokesman for the provincial governor said seven civilians had died after the Taliban detonated explosives laden into a Humvee.
Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement that the U.S. had conducted a strike against the Taliban in support of Afghan forces in a different district, adding that the Taliban claim of civilian casualties was false.
A video filmed by a local resident in Arghandab, and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, showed the bodies of 11 people, including at least seven children.
The allegations of civilian casualties prompted protests Sunday by Arghandab residents, who transported the bodies of their killed relatives along the road to Kandahar city.
The alleged civilian casualties add to concerns among Afghans that the government forces will be incapable of staving off the Taliban as U.S. forces continue their withdrawal from America’s longest war.
A major Taliban offensive in October against the embattled provincial capital of Helmand was averted only with assistance from American airstrikes. During the battle, two Afghan air force helicopters collided midair, killing nine soldiers.
Saturday’s government counterattack against the Taliban in Kandahar came hours after the two sides’ delegations in Doha announced they would take a break in peace talks until early January, after reaching a compromise on procedural disagreements that had deadlocked discussions before they had begun in earnest. The Taliban and Afghan delegations are ready to discuss the agenda for when talks resume.
The Afghan government launched the first-ever peace talks with the insurgents in the Qatari capital in September, following an accord in February between the Taliban and the U.S., which involved a phased withdrawal of roughly 12,000 American troops still in Afghanistan.
In return, the Taliban committed to engaging in peace talks with the Kabul government and to prevent al Qaeda and other international terror groups from operating out of Afghanistan.
Since the accord, the U.S. has drawn down its forces to about 4,500 troops. The Pentagon last month announced plans to reduce the number of troops to about 2,500 before Inauguration Day.
As part of its negotiations with the Trump administration, the Taliban also reached an understanding to significantly reduce violence, according to Western officials. But Afghan security officials accuse the Taliban of using a U.S. suspension in airstrikes to push its advantage on the battlefield, surrounding government bases and seizing highways.
Despite a sharp increase in the number of Taliban attacks across the country, the number of civilian casualties from January to September of this year decreased by 30% compared with the same period last year—to roughly 6,000, including 2,117 deaths—according to the United Nations.
The drop in casualties is primarily due to fewer large-scale suicide attacks in populated areas by antigovernment groups, and a near-halt in U.S. airstrikes, which over the course of the war have killed scores of civilians, according to the U.N.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at email@example.com
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