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The death last week of the Taliban’s senior leader in southern Afghanistan in a U.S. air strike highlights a surge in operations amid pressure to coax the increasingly confident insurgents to accept talks to end the 17-year war.
As U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad makes a fresh round of visits to Afghanistan and neighbouring countries this week and resumes meetings with Taliban representatives, military operations have spiked sharply across the country.
The aim, say Afghan and U.S. officials, is to build as strong a position as possible for the hoped-for start of peace talks with the Taliban.
Khalilzad told U.S. broadcaster PBS last week that he was “in a hurry” to secure an agreement with the Taliban, ideally ahead of presidential elections scheduled for April 20.
While U.S. officials have avoided talk of deadlines, the new urgency has raised fears among many in the Afghan government that the United States seeks a quick way out of its longest war.
“The United States basically wants a dignified withdrawal,” said one senior Afghan government official who is in near-daily contact with U.S. diplomats working on the peace process.
“Progress towards peace remains elusive,” the Pentagon Lead Inspector General told Congress in the latest report last month, as civilian and military casualties grow and just 65 percent of the population lives under government control.
Large Taliban forces have this year overrun the western city of Farah and the central city of Ghazni, fuelling perceptions that the insurgents, estimated to number 60,000 fighters, are winning.