US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad returns to Doha as Taliban continue attacks

Militants attacked another provincial capital on Friday, a day after deadly car bombing in Kabul

Resolute Support (RS) forces and Afghan security personnel clear debris at the site of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. A car bomb rocked the Afghan capital on Thursday and smoke rose from a part of eastern Kabul near a neighborhood housing the U.S. Embassy, the NATO Resolute Support mission and other diplomatic missions. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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Associated Press

The Taliban attacked a third provincial capital in Afghanistan in less than a week on Friday, killing at least two civilians, as the US peace envoy returned to Qatar for unscheduled talks on a US-Taliban deal that he had described as complete just days earlier.

Farah provincial governor Mohammad Shoaib Sabet said another 15 people were wounded in the latest attack, citing local hospitals, and that air strikes had been carried out against the militants. Small clashes continued in the city, he said.

This week's spike in violence, including two Taliban car bombings in the capital, Kabul, came after US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said that he and the insurgents had reached a deal "in principle" that would begin a US troop pullout in exchange for Taliban counterterror guarantees.

Mr Khalilzad abruptly returned to Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, from Kabul for more talks on Thursday evening, even though earlier in the week he said the deal only needed President Donald Trump's approval to be final.

Objections to the agreement raised by the Afghan government and several former US ambassadors to Afghanistan, and the death of a US service member in the latest Kabul bombing on Thursday, have increased pressure on Mr Khalilzad in recent days.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had planned to travel to Washington on Saturday for talks with Mr Trump but decided to postpone the visit, sources told Afghanistan's TOLOnews channel.

"Peace with a group that is still killing innocent people is meaningless," Mr Ghani said after the bomb attack on Thursday.

The US House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel has demanded that Mr Khalilzad testify before the panel about the peace negotiations, saying, "I do not consider your testimony at this hearing optional."

The Taliban have explained their surge in deadly attacks – including on the capitals of northern Kunduz and Baghlan provinces last weekend – as necessary to give them a stronger negotiating position in talks with the US, a stance that has appalled Afghans and others as scores of civilians are killed.

One Farah resident, Shams Noorzai, said the Taliban seized an army recruitment centre close to the city's main police headquarters and set it on fire on Friday. All shops had closed, he said, and some people were trying to flee. It was at least the third time the Taliban have attacked the city, the capital of Farah province, in the past four years.

The governor later said security forces had retaken the recruitment centre.

Fighting resumed in at least one part of Kunduz city and two outlying districts on Friday, with some residents trying to flee again, provincial council head Mohammad Yousuf Ayubi said.

Few details have emerged from the nine rounds of US-Taliban talks over nearly a year. Mr Khalilzad has said the first 5,000 US troops would withdraw from five bases in Afghanistan within 135 days of a final deal. Between 14,000 and 13,000 troops are currently in the country.

However, the Taliban want all of the approximately 20,000 US and Nato troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.

The US for its part seeks Taliban guarantees that they will not allow Afghanistan to become a haven from which extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and the local affiliate of ISIS can launch global attacks.