Taliban launches new offensive

Taliban fighters. Photo credit: File

The Taliban has launched its annual spring offensive, calling on Afghan soldiers and police to abandon the government in a statement that points to further violence before peace negotiations with Washington bear any fruit.

Fighting has intensified across Afghanistan in recent weeks, killing and wounding hundreds of Afghan troops and civilians, making the announcement of the Al-Fath ("Victory") operation largely symbolic.

The Afghan government launched its own offensive, dubbed Khalid, in March.

However, after repeated rounds of negotiations between US and Taliban representatives over recent months, it underlined how far Afghanistan still remains from peace more than 17 years after US-backed forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001.

A Taliban statement said Al-Fath's objective would be "eradicating occupation, cleansing our Muslim homeland from invasion and corruption, establishing an Islamic system along with defending and serving our believing fellow countrymen".

As well as assurances that civilians would be protected, it called on Afghan government soldiers and police, who have been suffering thousands of casualties a month, to abandon their posts and join the insurgency.

The announcement came days before the expected resumption of talks between US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban officials in Doha.

Representatives from a variety of Afghan groups are also expected to be present but the talks will once again exclude the Afghan government, which the Taliban dismiss as a US-appointed "puppet" regime.

The Taliban have made increasing gains as moves towards a possible peace deal have continued, with government forces in control of just over half the country, according to US estimates.

Afghan security forces have suffered the brunt of losses, with more than 45,000 killed since 2014, but three US service members were killed this week by a roadside bomb near Bagram air base, north of Kabul.