KABUL - The Taliban launched their annual spring offensive on Wednesday, in an apparent rejection of calls for the militants to take up the Afghan government’s offer of peace talks.

Operation Al Khandaq - named after a famous seventh century battle in Medinah in which Muslim fighters defeated “infidel” invaders - will target US forces and “their intelligence agents” as well as their “internal supporters”, a Taliban statement said.

The Taliban said the offensive was partly a response to US President Donald Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan announced last August, which gave US forces more leeway to go after insurgents.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a purported Taliban spokesman, said in the statement that their offensive codenamed “al-Khandaq jihadi” operation started early Wednesday. “Both our land and airspace are under the control of foreign occupying forces and our religious sanctities as well as helpless people are indiscriminately being targeted,” the Taliban statement said.

“The existence of multiple American bases set up under the Strategic Agreement between the American invaders and the puppet regime in Kabul are reasons through which America sabotages all chances of peace and plays crucial and decisive role in intensifying and prolonging the ongoing war in Afghanistan...” it said.

They urged civilians to stay away from official gatherings, military convoys and centres regarded as the legitimate targets by militants besides warning people not to support the government.

The annual spring offensive traditionally marks the start of the so-called fighting season, though this winter the Taliban continued to battle Afghan and US forces.

The group also launched a series of devastating attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians.

Al Khandaq will mainly focus on “crushing, killing and capturing American invaders and their supporters”, the Taliban said. It added the presence of American bases “sabotages all chances of peace” and were key to “prolonging the ongoing war”, which began with the US-led intervention in 2001 that overthrew the Taliban regime.

Afghanistan’s largest militant group has been under pressure to accept Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s February offer of peace talks, but the statement made no mention of the proposal.

Western and Afghan experts said the Taliban announcement was an apparent rejection of the offer and heralded more intense fighting in the drawn-out war. “We’re in for a hot and busy summer,” a foreign diplomat in Kabul told AFP.

Afghan political analyst Ahmad Saeedi said the Taliban appeared to consider America’s rejection of the group’s own request for direct peace talks with the US in February as leaving them with “no other choice but to fight”.

“This year they will try to weaken the (Afghan) government even further. They will try to derail the election process,” the Kabul University professor told AFP. “A weak government would eventually mean forcing the US to talk to them.”

Defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanish dismissed the Taliban announcement as “propaganda”.

The US-backed Afghan government is under pressure on multiple fronts this year as it prepares to hold long-delayed legislative elections even as its security forces struggle to get the upper hand on the battlefield and prevent civilian casualties.

On Sunday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd outside a voter registration centre in Kabul, killing 60 people and wounding 129, according to the latest figures from the health ministry.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bomb, but Western and Afghan officials suspect IS receives assistance from other groups, including the Taliban’s Haqqani Network, to carry out attacks.

Meanwhile, Afghan forces have killed five Islamic State militants including a key commander Qari Zahid and captured two others in the eastern Kunar province, an army spokesman in the restive province, Mir Wais Safi said Wednesday.

“Afghan forces have been targeting IS positions in Sidor area of Chapdara district over the past three days , and besides destroying the hardliner group’s hideouts, we have also killed five rebels including notorious commander Qari Zahid,” Safi told Xinhua.

LACK OF OVERSIGHT FOR AFGHAN DONATIONS: US WATCHDOG

Billions of dollars of reconstruction cash are flowing into Afghanistan with limited accounting of where and how the funds are being spent, a US government watchdog warned Wednesday.

At issue is the World Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) that comprises 34 donor nations and agencies and has contributed more than $10 billion to Afghanistan’s reconstruction effort.

The largest contributor is the United States, which has paid in more than $3 billion since 2002.

According to a new audit by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the World Bank is unable to accurately evaluate the impact of the funds, or monitor where the money goes.

“Billions of dollars of donor funds contributed to the ARTF are at risk due to continued limitations on, and lack of transparency into, monitoring and accounting of ARTF funding by the World Bank and the government of Afghanistan,” SIGAR said in a statement.

As an example, SIGAR said that when the World Bank approves reimbursements for Afghan workers, such as teachers, it does not require a third party monitor to check that the salary recipients actually exist - despite acknowledging a risk of “undetected ghost workers.”

The report also found that donors are unable to specify where they want funds to go, with the result that some monies are being spent in regions controlled by the Taliban or other insurgent groups.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), which provides the US contribution to the reconstruction fund, told SIGAR it is “no longer preferencing funds by geographic location,” the report noted.

SIGAR added that once the US or any other donor provides its contributions to the fund, “neither the World Bank nor USAID can account for how those funds are specifically spent.”

In its written response to the audit, the World Bank said it laid “out an opportunity for the government of Afghanistan, ARTF donors and the World Bank to strengthen the focus on results and accountability.”

The United States has spent 16.5 years and about $1 trillion overall in Afghanistan, including warfighting and aid, yet the Taliban and other insurgent groups still control or are pushing for influence in large swaths of the country.

 

AFP/Xinhua