KABUL — Taliban fighters mounted their second attack in two days on a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, as American and Taliban negotiators finalized the details of a preliminary peace agreement.
Just before the top American negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the two sides were on “the threshold of an agreement,” the Taliban attacked poorly defended provincial capitals and forced the Afghan government to send in commandos to keep the cities from being overrun.
The Taliban attack Sunday targeted Pul-i-Kumri, the capital of Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan, about 145 miles north of Kabul. On Saturday, the militants launched an offensive against a neighboring provincial capital, Kunduz, killing the top police spokesman and wounding the police chief, local officials said.
There were no immediate official reports of casualties in Baghlan province Sunday. But a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on Twitter that fighters had entered Pul-i-Kumri after overrunning four government checkpoints and killing several soldiers and police officers. He said heavy fighting continued.
Since peace negotiations began last fall, both sides have ramped up combat operations in order to improve their positions on the ground. But the Taliban have often seized the initiative, as they did this weekend, even as American and Afghan government airstrikes and US-backed commando raids have inflicted heavy casualties.
The Taliban are able to attack government-held centers almost at will because Afghan troops and police generally hunker down in defensive positions on bases, checkpoints, and command centers, leaving most offensive operations to commandos and airstrikes.
Taliban fighters attacked Pul-i-Kumri from two directions early Sunday, said Mahmood Haqmal, a spokesman for the provincial governor. The militants entered homes, killing local Afghans they accused of conspiring against them, said Leqaa Andarabi, a former police chief who commands a local progovernment militia.
“They got in because the intelligence people weren’t doing their jobs,” Andarabi said, echoing frequent complaints from local officials that government military and intelligence commanders have failed to secure provincial capitals.
Safdar Mohseni, the head of the provincial council in Baghlan, said at midday Sunday that no government reinforcements had arrived. He said the city was being defended by progovernment self-defense militias known as uprisers, along with some police units and government intelligence officials.
“I’m on the front lines now, and the fighting is very fierce,” Mohseni said. “The situation in the city is very bad — people are panicking and trying to find ways to flee.”
That Mohseni, a civilian official, was helping to organize the city’s defenses was an indication that government security forces there were in disarray. The governors of both Baghlan and Kunduz provinces were absent.
The Baghlan governor, Farid Baseem, left for India several days ago without informing provincial officials, Mohseni said. The Kunduz governor, Abdul Jabbar Naemi, was in India on Sunday for medical treatment, said his spokesman, Ismatullah Muradi.
Mustafa Mohseni, a former police official and current militia commander in Pul-i-Kumri and Safdar Mohseni’s brother, said Taliban fighters had entered sections of the city as police officers and militiamen fought to hold them off. Mustafa Mohseni said that the main highway to Kabul was closed and that residents had remained in their homes as the militants advanced.
“We heard the sounds of gunfire and mortars at 4 a.m.,” said Khadija Yaqeen, who lives in a section of Pul-i-Kumri under attack. Yaqeen, who leads the local women’s affairs directorate, said that electrical service had been cut, restored, and then cut again, and that most cellphone service was down.
Government officials said Sunday that Taliban fighters had been driven out of Kunduz by commandos and airstrikes, with many militants moving south to attack Pul-i-Kumri. Taliban fighters had been able to penetrate deep into Kunduz, briefly occupying the health department and a hospital, said Ehsanullah Fazli, the health director for Kunduz province.
The fighting killed at least 20 security force members and five civilians, and wounded 85 others, the Ministry of Interior said in a statement. As many as 56 Taliban fighters were killed, the ministry said.
Fawad Aman, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said in a Twitter post Sunday that government forces in Pul-i-Kumri had rebuffed the Taliban attack. But government officials have said in the past that they had regained control of cities even as fighting continued in provincial capitals under Taliban attack.
Khalilzad, the American negotiator, said he was flying Sunday from Doha, Qatar, the site of the peace talks, to Kabul, the Afghan capital, to brief Afghan leaders. He said on Twitter that he had warned Taliban negotiators that “violence like this must stop,” referring to the attack on Kunduz.
The Afghan government, which the Taliban has called an American puppet, has been excluded from the talks. The ninth round of negotiations ended early Sunday, and an announcement of a final preliminary agreement was expected soon.
The agreement is expected to set a timeline for the phased withdrawal of US and NATO troops and to open a path for direct negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan officials over the country’s political future.
Under the deal, the Taliban would agree not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorist attacks, and negotiators would attempt to secure a reduction in violence leading to a cease-fire.
Khalilzad said in a Twitter post early Sunday that the agreement would “reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together and to negotiate an honorable & sustainable peace and a unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies or any other country.”