The Taliban bombed an army base in Kabul on Thursday, stoking fears of an escalation in Afghanistan's war a day after US President Donald Trump vowed to hit the insurgents "harder than they have ever been hit before".
Mr Trump's warning at a 9/11 commemoration ceremony came after the Taliban threatened to step up violence in response to his sudden decision to suspend peace talks after nearly a year of negotiations. Calling off of talks "will harm America more than anyone else", the Taliban said after the president announced his decision on Saturday.
The Taliban have claimed a number of attacks across Afghanistan since then. On Wednesday the group fired several rockets at the US Embassy in Kabul although no casualties were reported. Thursday's attack by a suicide car bomber killed four soldiers at a commando base in Chahr Asiab district.
But Afghan officials said the security forces had registered greater success against the Taliban despite the militants steadily increasing their attacks during the peace talks.
"Based on casualties, we have had the lowest civilian and [security forces] casualties, while we have inflicted a greater number of Taliban casualties including in their high ranks," a senior security official told The National, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said security forces had made territorial gains as well, including certain northern districts that had been under Taliban control for many years. “In the north, they have been targeting Baghlan, Badakhshan, Takhar and Kunduz, but we have also had a lot of achievement. We have been to the provinces where we have never been in the last 14 years; we retook several districts from Taliban control in Paktia, Badakhshan and other parts of the country,” he said.
Experts have predicted more violence, not only because of the collapse of the peace talks but also because of the presidential election scheduled for later this month.
“It is clear that violence will escalate at this stage; both sides have have indicated that. But also because there is still some hope for peace,” said Omar Sadr, a security analyst in Kabul.
“Considering recent remarks by [US Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo, it seems they are still interested in a deal with Taliban; so escalation of violence is expected as a way for both parties to increase pressure to gain more out of the bargaining,” he said.
The security official said the future situation would depend on the Taliban. “The Taliban can’t achieve anything by taking innocent lives for their so-called leverage. If they don’t agree to intra-Afghan talks then yes, we will hit them harder,” he said, echoing the US president.
Mr Trump’s words also resonated among ordinary Afghan troops, who have been at the receiving end of the increasing Taliban violence. “We support Mr Trump’s decision and hope he will stand by it. I agree with him: the Taliban must be killed because they don't want peace,” said a soldier based in the north-western province of Faryab.
“I have been fighting the Taliban for the last 14 years and they haven’t changed," said the soldier, who asked to be identified only as Aminullah. "They were inflicting violence on innocent Afghans even while they were talking about peace with the US.”