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Afghan Taliban driven out of Helmand capital, governor says

KABUL: Afghan troops have pushed back the Taliban from the outskirts of Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, in the south of the country, with the insurgent group losing 300 men in recent days, Helmand’s governor said on Saturday.

“The Taliban have been driven (out) from the limits of the city and have lost over 300 men, including their commanders and senior members, in Helmand’s fighting,” Mohammed Yasin Khan told reporters, adding that 30 defense and security forces, and seven civilians also died.

The Taliban were unavailable for comment on Saturday and have remained tight-lipped about their losses in Helmand since last week.

Strikes which were thought to be by the group prompted US troops in Afghanistan to bomb advancing Taliban members, accusing them of being “inconsistent” with a peace agreement signed in Qatar in February this year.

The Taliban’s major drive to gain a foothold in Lashkar Gah contravenes the February accord, which bars it from carrying out large-scale offensives and attacks on urban areas.

Both US and NATO have called on the Taliban to immediately halt their strikes.

It follows a surge in violence elsewhere in Afghanistan and is taking place amid the withdrawal of US troops from various parts of the country, including Helmand, which is located near the border with Pakistan and Iran.

The Taliban and Kabul have accused each other of stepping up their attacks.

Meanwhile negotiators from both sides are meeting in Doha, Qatar, for intra-Afghan talks which began on Sept.12 to find a working mechanism to end decades of conflict.

Commenting on the increase in Taliban attacks and the proposed departure of US troops from Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, said on Friday that the “violence will not lead the country to peace.”

He added that the Taliban should not be under any illusion that the group can re-establish an Islamic Emirate, which was toppled during the US-led invasion in 2001.

“If they are thinking of reimposing the Taliban emirate after the withdrawal of the international forces, it will not be acceptable for the people of Afghanistan under any circumstances,” Abdullah said.

Shifting stances by US leaders on the timetable for pull-out of troops from Afghanistan has confounded many.

According to the Doha deal, all American troops were expected to leave the country by spring 2021. However, to the surprise of many Afghans and officials in Washington, US President Donald Trump tweeted on Oct. 7 that he wanted all American troops home “by Christmas”.

Adding to the diplomatic and political seesaw, Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said on Friday that US troops in Afghanistan would be downsized to nearly 2,500 in the first two months of 2021.

In the past, Afghan officials have played down the importance of a reduction or even the departure of all foreign troops from the country, arguing that national forces could fend off the insurgents’ attacks.

However, Javid Faisal, an adviser in the office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said on Saturday that the troops’ departure must be condition-based.

“Conditions on the ground and how things evolve must define any future decision more than wishes and impetuous schedules, as none of the obligations have been met and none of the subsisting threats receded,” he said.

However, Kabul respected Washington’s decision to withdraw troops, government-appointed negotiator Nader Nadery has said in Doha.

“It is a sovereign decision by them; they are a partner with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. They make a decision based on their own policy. Whatever decision they make it is entirely up to them,” Nadery said.

“What is relevant to us is a commitment to a peaceful settlement, and that is what we are engaged to (achieve) in Qatar,” he added.

Experts, however, blamed the “foundation” of the deal for the current impasse in talks and the turmoil in the country.

“The Americans laid a wrong foundation with regards to its deal with the Taliban,” Abdul Satar Saadat, a former adviser to President Ghani, told Arab News on Saturday.

“The US should have brought the Taliban with the government on the same page and then should have signed the agreement with the Taliban and pulled its troops. Now, the Taliban feel emboldened and think can capture power because the government is weak after the pull-out of the troops.”

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