Taliban fighters have killed at least 25 pro-government forces in northern Afghanistan as a seventh round of peace talks with the US is set to get under way in Doha.
The Taliban attacked the pro-government fighters in Baghlan on Friday night, Afghan officials have said. In addition to the deaths, eight others were also wounded during several hours of fighting late on Friday.
The Reuters news agency said the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
The group’s representatives are set to meet US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha on Saturday in the latest effort to end 18 years of fighting.
“There is a genuine sense of expectation on both sides,” a senior US official, who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to media, told Reuters. “It’s a make-or-break moment.”
Khalilzad has been in Afghanistan and regional countries for several weeks meeting a host of neighboring and Afghan officials, including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
On a trip to Kabul on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was close to finishing a draft agreement with the group on counterterrorism assurances, and he hoped a peace pact could be reached by Sept. 1.
The pace of talks between the US and Taliban has sped up as Afghanistan heads for presidential elections on September 28.
“This is one of the crucial meetings,” a senior Taliban leader in Qatar said, on condition of anonymity.
“If we fail to find any solution to the Afghan conflict then we would like to negotiate with the elected representatives of the American people.”
The Taliban have repeatedly refused to allow representatives of the Afghan government join the negotiations, but have held several rounds of talks with a collection of Afghans from Kabul, including former President Hamid Karzai, in two meetings in Moscow earlier this year.
The Doha talks centre on four interconnected issues: a Taliban guarantee that it will not allow fighters to use Afghanistan to launch international attacks, the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, an intra-Afghan dialogue and a permanent ceasefire.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a US-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Several thousand US forces carry out counterterrorism operations.
The Taliban, who control or contest half the country, more than at any time since they were ousted by the US invasion in 2001, do not support the election process and have rejected a ceasefire.
They want to form an interim government, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and leaders of opposition political parties have rejected the demand.
Ghani, who has been sidelined from the talks, hopes the seventh round will open the door for an intra-Afghan meeting.
Germany, a key ally of the US in Afghanistan, is trying to organise a meeting of the Taliban and civilian representatives.
Some Afghan officials fear the US and the Taliban will strike a deal allowing the US to leave the country, leaving government forces to battle on alone.
Civil society representatives, especially women’s groups are concerned that a deal with the Taliban, who banned women from many aspects of public life while in power, will roll back freedoms women have gained since the group was ousted in 2001.