The Taliban on Wednesday rejected an offer for peace talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, as it announced the launch of its annual spring offensive, which it said would target U.S. forces in the conflict.
Ghani extended an olive branch to the Islamist group in February, offering to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political actor “without preconditions,” in a bid to end the 17-year war.
In a statement Wednesday, the Taliban rejected that offer as a “conspiracy” intended to divert public attention “from the illegitimate foreign occupation of the country.”
The group pledged that its 2018 campaign, named Al Khandaq after a battle waged by the Prophet Mohammed, would focus on the U.S. military.
“Its primary target will be the American invaders and their intelligence agents. Their internal supporters will be dealt with as a secondary target,” the statement said, adding, “The Americans have no serious or sincere intentions of bringing the war to an end.”
“Rather they want to intensify and prolong it by engulfing Afghanistan as well as the whole region in its flames, thus securing chances of their further influence and interference,” it said.
The United States has ramped up its military posture in Afghanistan under the Trump administration, reversing the previous policy of a phased withdrawal from the conflict. Thousands more troops have been deployed, and commanders have been given greater scope to order airstrikes.
But the strategy hasn’t worked to break a lengthy stalemate on the battlefield, with the government controlling only 56 percent of the country, according to Pentagon estimates, and the Taliban able to carry out attacks on urban centers seemingly at will.
The Taliban noted the more aggressive Trump strategy in its statement Wednesday.
“Besides sustaining the ongoing illegitimate occupation, the newly adopted war strategy of Trump has been ruthlessly implemented in the villages and rural areas against our oppressed Afghan people for the past nine months,” it said. “Thousands of additional foreign forces are being deployed inside Afghanistan and they are supplied with new devastating weapons and vast military authorities.”
The statement represents a hardening of the group’s public position toward U.S. forces. In February, it had published a 2,800-word open letter to America, calling on Washington to come to the negotiating table and end the war.
“Our preference is to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogue,” the letter read, warning that the alternative was a war that would grind on indefinitely. Publicly, the U.S. military was dismissive of the offering, with a spokesman for the NATO-led military mission saying the Taliban’s continued bomb attacks showed it wasn’t genuine about peace.
Although Wednesday’s announcement marked the symbolic launch of the fighting season, the wave of attacks had already increased in recent days. At least 11 Afghan soldiers and police officers were killed Tuesday in separate Taliban attacks in Farah and Ghazni provinces; a day earlier, the group killed 18 members of security forces in the west of the country.
The country is also facing attacks by the rival Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed an estimated 60 people at a voter registration center in Kabul Sunday. On Monday, officials in the eastern province of Nangarhar said Islamic State fighters had beheaded three brothers, all of them medical professionals, accusing them of having links to the government.
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on America?s military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. (Mark Wilson/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)