KABUL, Afghanistan: A US peace envoy brought a warning to the Taliban on Tuesday that any government that comes to power through force in Afghanistan won’t be recognised internationally after a series of cities fell to the insurgent group in stunningly quick succession.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy, travelled to Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, to tell the group that there was no point in pursuing victory on the battlefield because a military takeover of Kabul would guarantee they will be global pariahs. He and others hope to persuade Taliban leaders to return to peace talks with the Afghan government as American and NATO forces finish their pullout from the country.
The insurgents have captured five out of 34 provincial capitals in the country in less than a week. They are now battling the Western-backed government for control of several others, including Lashkar Gah in Helmand, and Kandahar and Farah in provinces of the same names.
After a 20-year Western military mission and billions of dollars spent training and shoring up Afghan forces, many are at odds to explain why the regular forces have collapsed, fleeing the battle sometimes by the hundreds. The fighting has fallen largely to small groups of elite forces and the Afghan air force.
The success of the Taliban blitz has added urgency to the need to restart the long-stalled talks that could end the fighting and move Afghanistan toward an inclusive interim administration.
The new pressure from Khalilzad follows condemnations from the international community and a similar warning from the United Nations that a Taliban government that takes power by force would not be recognised. The insurgents have so far refused to return to the negotiating table.
Khalilzad’s mission in Qatar is to “help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan,’’ according to the US State Department.
He plans to “press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan,’’ the State Department said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban military chief released an audio message to his fighters on Tuesday, ordering them not to harm Afghan forces and government officials in territories they conquer. The recording was shared on Twitter by the Taliban spokesman in Doha, Mohammad Naim.
In the nearly five-minute audio, Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, also told the insurgents to stay out of abandoned homes of government and security officials who have fled, leave marketplaces open and protect places of business, including banks.
It was not immediately clear if Taliban fighters on the ground would heed Yaqoob’s instructions. There have been reports by civilians who have fled Taliban advances of heavy-handed treatment by the insurgents — schools being burned down and repressive restrictions on women.
There have also been reports of revenge killings in areas where the Taliban have gained control, and the insurgents have claimed responsibility for killing a comedian in southern Kandahar, assassinating the government’s media chief Kabul and a bombing that targeted acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, killing eight and wounding more. The minister was not harmed in the attack.
The intensifying war has also increased the number of civilian casualties.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that its staff has treated more than 4,000 Afghans this month in their 15 facilities across the country, including in Helmand and Kandahar, where Afghan and US airstrikes are trying to rein in the Taliban onslaught.