After more than a decade of bloody fighting, and just weeks into the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, Afghan soldiers are divided – hit back at the militant group or seriously pursue peace talks.
The Taliban announced its spring offensive late in April, and the militant group's annual ritual has already become a typically bloody affair.
Afghan officials say the group has launched more than 2,700 attacks in the Al Khandaq campaign – named after one of the Prophet Mohammed’s battles in Medina – in just over three weeks.
The announcement of the fighting season was a dismissal of President Ashraf Ghani’s peace offering in February for talks “without preconditions”. Officials in Washington, who have helped to prop up Mr Ghani’s government, pointed to the new offensive as another example of the Taliban’s insistence on bringing instability to the country.
The Taliban said its primary target would be the “American invaders”, their Afghan backers second. It was more of the same after 17 years of war following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan that removed the militant group from power.
But the Afghan soldiers waging the battle on the ground against the group are weary and divided. While some said the loss of more Afghan blood was worth the continued fight, others believed the way forward was Mr Ghani’s path of peace.
"[The Afghan government] should have known that the Taliban would never say yes [to peace talks]," Captain Mujahid Amin, a 32-year-old Afghan National Army commander, told The National.
“It is a waste of resources, in my opinion. The only way [to get the Taliban under control] is to launch an offensive against them. We have to force them to respond positively,” said the soldier who has been fighting the Taliban for most of his adult life, losing many friends and colleagues in the process.
Yet successive military operations against the group and its fighters have not yielded a resolution to the years-long insurgency. In the 19 days since the Taliban announced its spring offensive, it has conducted several attacks in Kabul that the government blamed on the guerrilla group affiliated to the so-called Haqqani Network. It also overran the western city of Farah, killing 30 people before abandoning it amid clashes with Afghan security forces.
Others see advantages in dialogue and believe that the government in Kabul should be doing more to reduce support for the group that wants to impose its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law across the country.
"I think it's a good approach to offer to negotiate peace. At the end of the day they are from Afghanistan,” said Sergeant Ahmad Fawad, 28 years old, who has served in the Afghan Army since 2009. “Eventually they will realise what they are doing is wrong. It is up to us to convince them”.
Another method that could pressure the group into coming to the table is “good governance,” he said, particularly in rural areas where soldiers have witnessed a dramatic lack of public services.
“This is providing more leverage to the Taliban,” he continued. “It gives them a pool of human resources – poor and desperate – to recruit from. In parallel to our offensive, the government must create more job possibilities and provide more facilities to the public”.
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While greater support for the Taliban has come from these areas, there are also signs of support for peace. After the bombing of a stadium in Helmand Province in March, dozens of peace activists, including women, set up tents in Lashkar Gah to march and protest for an end to war in the country. Helmand is traditionally a Taliban stronghold and a base for the group’s lucrative opium trade.
With Afghans showing their desire for an end to the conflict, there may be greater hopes of peace after all. In another positive development, officials in Washington have indicated that the Taliban are participating in talks, if not publicly.
"The Taliban are talking on many levels, unofficially, behind the scenes, to leaders in and out of government, and to many nations in the region," General John Nicholson of the US army told The National.
“So I'm encouraged by this moment, when we think a dialogue is beginning about a way forward. It's clear what the Afghan people want. So we are hopeful that this dialogue will continue, even as we fight”.
Ahmad Shuja Jamal, an Afghan research scholar who is currently the editor of the Georgetown Public Policy Review, also said the spring offensive announcement did not rule out the possibility of negotiations but rather that all parties – the Taliban, the Afghan government and the US – are employing a fight-and-talk posture.
“When the Taliban reject calls for peace, they typically do so explicitly. When they disavow talks or representatives, they make it clear. The statement they issued about their spring offensive said nothing of the peace talks,” Mr Jamal said.
“They don't want to make a peace announcement that could affect their battleground momentum at a time when they would want to enter possible talks on a high note.”
There remain obstacles, however, and troops say at least one of these is the support the Taliban gets in neighbouring Pakistan, where the group has a powerful faction.
“They must know that they have to discuss peace with Pakistan, who control the Taliban,” said Allah Gul, a 25-year-old Afghan soldier from the country’s north, accusing Islamabad of harbouring, funding and training the insurgents.
“Some of these Taliban fighters are only fighting for a monthly income [from Pakistan]. [Afghan] government should go to Pakistan to get them to stop their support to the Taliban,” he continued.
Even though the Taliban rejects the state and its functions, Mr Gul appeals to the group’s fighters to do what is right for the country.
“We are all tired of the fighting. If you’re indeed from Afghanistan, then please stop killing us. Don’t let others control you like puppets; be aware of those manipulating you,” he said, appearing to refer to outside influences, such as Pakistan and both Iran and Russia, who have been accused of supporting the group.
“Come join your brothers, and we’ll build a stronger country together”.