KABUL: Devotees gather inside a mosque after a bomb blast on the outskirts of Kabul that killed at least 12 people, shattering the relative calm of a holiday ceasefire between the warring Taleban and government forces. – AFP

KANDAHAR: Fighting between the Taleban and Afghan government forces resumed yesterday in the restive southern province of Helmand, officials said, ending a three-day ceasefire agreed by the warring sides to mark the Eid Al-Fitr holiday. Violence has soared as the United States military presses ahead with a plan to withdraw all of its troops by September, bringing an end to a 20-year military operation in Afghanistan. “The fighting started early today and is still ongoing,” Attaullah Afghan, head of the Helmand provincial council, told AFP as a three-day temporary truce ended late on Saturday.

He said Taleban fighters attacked security checkpoints on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, and some other districts. An Afghan army spokesman in the south confirmed fighting had resumed, and the Helmand governor’s office said that 21 Taleban fighters had been killed so far. “They (Afghan forces) started the operation… do not put the blame on us,” Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

Washington has vowed to end America’s longest war but missed a May 1 deadline to pull out, as agreed with the Taleban last year in return for security guarantees and a promise to launch talks with the Afghan government. President Joe Biden pushed back the date to September 11 — exactly two decades on from the terrorist attacks in the United States which led Washington to invade Afghanistan and oust the Taleban.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed and millions have since been displaced by the conflict, which has seen a resurgent Taleban take hold of large swathes of the country. Nishank Motwani, an independent Afghanistan expert based in Australia, told AFP the Taleban viewed the American withdrawal as a win. “It gives the insurgents a proclamation of victory, bookends their removal and eventual return to power, and signals that the end is in sight for the Afghan republic in its current state,” he said.

Fragile truce ends
Government forces have continued to receive vital air support from US warplanes, and there are concerns over whether they would be able to hold back the insurgents without Washington’s help. “It is now going to be very difficult for us to conduct operations,” an Afghan army officer said earlier this week after US forces pulled out fully from Kandahar Airfield, once the second largest base of coalition forces. “Our aircraft can’t fly at night so the night operations are going to be difficult.”

The three-day truce initiated by the Taleban and swiftly agreed to by the Afghan government had largely held during the Eid holidays that ended on Saturday. The calm was, however, broken on Friday by a blast at a mosque on the outskirts of the Afghan capital, which killed 12 people including the imam leading Friday prayers. The Taleban denied it was behind the attack, which has been claimed by the Islamic State group, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist groups.

The truce was only the fourth agreed pause in fighting in the two-decades-long conflict. The warring sides launched unprecedented peace talks in September in Qatar, but they have stalled in recent months. Some negotiators from the Afghan government and Taliban said they had met in Doha on Friday to discuss speeding up the faltering talks.

“Both sides agreed to continue the talks after (Eid Al-Fitr),” the Taleban tweeted. As violence raged, including a wave of targeted killings on Afghanistan’s educated class, international efforts had been made to jump start the negotiations-including a one-day conference in Moscow in March. Turkey was also scheduled to hold an Afghanistan conference in late April but it was postponed indefinitely because the Taleban declined to attend. – AFP