KABUL: The Taliban have killed or wounded more than 400 Afghan security personnel over the past week, the interior ministry said on Sunday, accusing the insurgents of increasing attacks ahead of expected peace talks.
Violence had dropped across much of Afghanistan since the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire on May 24 to mark the Eidul Fitr holiday, but officials have accused the insurgents of stepping up attacks in recent days.
“In the past one week, the Taliban carried out 222 attacks against the Afghan security forces, resulting in the death and injury of 422” personnel, interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said at a press conference.
He also accused the Taliban of targeting religious scholars in a bid to put “psychological pressure” on the Afghan government.
Bomb attacks on Kabul mosques that killed two prayer leaders this month were the work of the insurgents, Arian claimed.
“This has been the goal of the Taliban to target religious scholars, especially in the past two weeks,” Arian said, accusing the militants of being an “umbrella group for other terrorist networks”.
On Friday, four people including a prayer leader were killed when a blast ripped through a mosque in Kabul during the weekly prayers.
No group claimed that assault, which came just over a week after an Islamic State-claimed attack at a mosque on the edge of Kabul’s heavily fortified Green Zone killed a prominent prayer leader. The Taliban condemned both attacks.
After initially reporting a drop in overall violence following the ceasefire, National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal on Sunday said the Taliban “have not reduced, but rather increased their attacks across the country”.
The council on Saturday also charged that the insurgents had killed 89 civilians and wounded 150 in the last two weeks. Interior Minister Massoud Andrabi said both the Taliban and Afghan forces had honoured the ceasefire during Eid.
“But after Eid, the Taliban attacks slowly started rising to its previous recorded numbers as before Eid,” Andrabi said.
“The Taliban are now looking for any targets or opportunities to attack, kidnap and assassinate Afghan officials,” he said.
The Taliban is currently conducting more than 60 attacks every 24 hours, he said, adding that insurgent fighters were coming from areas in Waziristan and Baluchistan in neighbourhing Pakistan.
The Taliban acknowledged carrying out attacks against security forces, but insisted the level remained low.
“We have reduced our attacks to 35-40 percent of what it used to be in the past,” Taliban’s spokesman representing insurgent fighting forces, Zabihullah Mujahid, said.
The Taliban have also not claimed launching any major attacks on Afghan cities since February, when they signed a deal with the US meant to pave the way for peace talks.
The latest government accusations come after Kabul and Taliban signalled that they were getting closer to launching much delayed peace talks.
President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to complete a Taliban prisoner release that is a key condition to beginning the negotiations with the insurgents aimed at ending nearly two decades of war.
The authorities have already released about 3,000 Taliban prisoners, and plan to further free 2,000 as stipulated in the insurgents’ deal with US.
“Our position is that our remaining prisoners (2,000) should be released before the beginning of intra-Afghan negotiation,” the Taliban’s political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.
New polio cases as coronavirus halts immunisation
Afghanistan has detected polio in areas previously declared free of the life-threatening disease after immunisation programmes were paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, officials said on Sunday.
The polio virus has spread to three provinces that had not reported cases for up to five years, said Jan Rasekh, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s polio eradication programme.
Balkh, Herat and Badakhshan have each declared a single case.
Although the number of new cases nationwide is lower so far this year — with 14 compared to 26 in 2019 — the location has sparked concern.
“We had worked hard for years and cornered polio to a limited geography,” Rasekh said.
“The coronavirus has helped polio spread beyond its endemic region of south and southeast, and now threatens people across the country,” he added.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF said last month that polio eradication drives had been suspended in dozens of countries, while measles vaccination campaigns were also put on hold in 27 nations.
There are only two nations remaining where the wild version of the polio virus continues to spread — Pakistan and Afghanistan — but a strain that has mutated from the vaccine itself has caused outbreaks in Africa.
Up to 10 nationwide polio immunisation drives are usually completed in Afghanistan every year.
But only two missions were carried out before the outbreak of coronavirus, Rasekh said, adding that he hopes they can resume in July.
The Taliban continues to ban authorities from conducting house-to-house campaigns -- the most effective way to fight the virus — in areas it controls, he added.
Polio immunisation is compulsory in Afghanistan as government policy, but distrust of vaccines is rife.
But the Taliban and religious leaders often tell communities that vaccines are a Western conspiracy aimed at sterilising Muslim children, and believe immunisation drives are used for spying on militant activities.
Afghan authorities, meanwhile, are grappling with surging cases of coronavirus, as authorities struggle to impose a nationwide lockdown to curb its spread.
Afghanistan has so far declared more than 24,500 confirmed Covid-19 cases with 471 deaths.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2020