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Taliban ramp up attacks even as coronavirus spreads in Afghanistan

KABUL — The Taliban have returned to an all-out offensive on the battlefield, killing dozens of Afghan security forces each day, officials say, even as US officials try to keep alive a scuttled peace deal to end the long war in Afghanistan.

The insurgents have ignored appeals for a cease-fire on humanitarian grounds as the fast-spreading coronavirus threatens to overwhelm the country’s feeble health system and wreck an economy already dependent on foreign donations. They accuse the United States of not upholding its end of the deal signed in February, which promised the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government in matter of 10 days, as a prelude to direct talks between the two Afghan sides on a cease-fire and power-sharing.

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President Trump spoke over the phone Wednesday with the emir of Qatar, where the Taliban’s negotiating team is based, about “the importance of the Taliban reducing violence and continuing discussions on prisoner releases,” the White House said. Trump’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and General Austin S. Miller, the commander in charge of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, also traveled to Qatar this month for meetings with the Taliban.

There was no statement from the US side about what was discussed, but the Taliban said the talks had focused on the “complete implementation of the agreement as well as delay in the release of the prisoners.”

In the past, violence levels have been a major part of the discussion when the US military commander has participated.

With the peace deal seemingly stuck, the insurgents have continued to wield their main leverage: ratcheting up attacks across the country.

Concern is growing that if the urgency of a pandemic cannot bring the two Afghan sides closer, the small momentum created for peace could evaporate, and the country could be thrown further into bloodshed, with the United States continuing to withdraw its troops and cut funding.

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The country had just 1,330 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Friday and 40 deaths. But disarray and a lack of widespread testing — just over 7,000 have been conducted, according to the country’s health ministry — mean that the true number could be far higher.

One senior Afghan official said the insurgents had launched an average of about 50 attacks per day over the past two weeks and government records show as many as 100 attacks across the country on some days. A Western military official said the average over that period was over 70 attacks per day.

In that period, 25 to 40 Afghan forces have been killed each day, according to two Afghan security officials. Government reports also show high casualties to the Taliban — on some days higher than the death toll of the Afghan security forces — but those figures could not be verified independently.

The one change in Taliban tactics seems to be that the insurgents are not publicizing each attack as vigorously across their robust social media and online platforms. They have also stayed away from any major bombings inside cities.

In one of the latest gruesome attacks in western Badghis province, Taliban fighters began an assault late Thursday as an Afghan government militia unit was preparing food for a meal before fasting for the holy month of Ramadan. That attack killed at least 13 members of the militia, known as Public Uprisings, which is funded and supplied by the Afghan government.

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“We didn’t think the Taliban would attack on the eve of the first day of Ramadan,” said Mubarak Shah Azizi, the unit’s commander. “The food we had prepared was left like that. We are busy with the burials today.”

The agreement between the Taliban and the United States, seen as a significant step toward ending the war in a more comprehensive peace deal, hit roadblocks as soon as it was signed.

President Ashraf Ghani, stuck in an election dispute that the United States was holding over his head by not recognizing his victory, opposed the prisoner releases that the United States had signed off on his behalf.

Ghani eventually agreed to releases, in a phased manner and on his terms, only after US officials attended his second-term inauguration.