Afghan counter attack overshadows peace talks

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Afghan security forces launched a counter offensive in the south against Taliban fighters, officials said, as fighting raged for a third day in a major insurgent offensive overshadowing peace talks.

The Taliban assault on Helmand Province tests the resolve of government at the start of talks to end the 19-year war and could complicate President Donald Trump’s pre-election pledge to bring home remaining US troops by Christmas.

It is the first big Taliban offensive since talks between government and the Taliban opened last month and one of the biggest since fighters committed to a ceasefire as part of a deal agreed with Washington in February to withdraw US troops.

The US confirmed it launched air strikes against Taliban fighters to push back the Helmand assault. US air strikes are comparatively rare since February when Washington agreed to pull its troops out to end the longest war in US history.

Since Sunday, insurgents seized military bases in Helmand and closed in on provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

The Helmand governor’s media office said Afghan special forces, aided by air strikes from the country’s air force, took back five checkpoints from Taliban control, killing 23 group fighters.

Jets and helicopters circled Lashkar Gah through the night on Monday and Tuesday, attacking Taliban positions.

Around 5 000 families have been displaced by fighting, head of the refugee and repatriation department, Sayed Mohammad Amin, said adding  there was an urgent need for food and shelter.

Trump, lagging in the polls ahead of an election, promised to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban welcomed his tweet last week that troops should be “home by Christmas”.

The withdrawal agreement requires fighters to halt attacks on urban areas before US.troops leave. In an interview with NPR, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley stressed the withdrawal was conditions-based.

“We’re monitoring all conditions closely. And we’re, we the military, giving our best military advice on those conditions so the president can make an informed, deliberate, responsible decision.”

Talks between government and Taliban in Qatar have moved slowly and are still in early stages. Both sides said their contact groups had met.