KABUL (Dispatches) -- Taliban forces attacked the northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Saturday, a day after the launch of their annual spring offensive, as fighting intensified across the country ahead of the next round of peace talks with U.S. representatives.
Heavy fighting has been going on for weeks but the announcement of the spring offensive while peace talks were due was a blow to any hopes of a quick agreement and was criticized as "reckless” by U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement the movement was committed to the peace process but accused Afghan and foreign forces of stepping up their own operations.
"We are committed to the ongoing process of negotiation and peaceful resolution, but we cannot be unmoved in the face of military operations and the terrorist wave of occupiers and mercenaries,” Mujahid said.
In Kunduz, the strategic city which briefly fell to the Taliban in 2015, fighters attacked from several directions in the early hours of the morning, causing heavy casualties, the provincial governor’s spokesman Enhamuddin Rahmani said.
A local health official said more than 70 dead and wounded had been brought into the main city hospital.
There were also attacks in the northern provinces of Baghlan, Takhar and Badakhshan, as well as Faryab, Sar-e Pul and Balkh.
In southern Afghanistan, Taliban forces launched attacks in the opium-rich province of Helmand, with operations in Nad Ali, Gereshk and Sangin districts, areas that have been fought over for the past 17 years.
Omar Zwak, the provincial governor’s spokesman, said the attacks had been repelled at the cost of four soldiers and 15 Taliban. "The fighting will further increase as the weather warms up,” he said.
Separately, seven members of the security forces were killed in an ambush in the western province of Ghor, leading to an hours-long firefight, provincial government spokesman Abdul Hai Khatibi said.
The spread of operations across most parts of the country underlined the struggle facing the Afghan government, still shut out of the peace process by the Taliban’s refusal to talk to what they consider a puppet regime.
According to U.S. estimates, government forces control just over half the country, but with many areas out of reach of easy communications an accurate picture is difficult.
Peace talks are due to resume in Doha next week between U.S. envoy Khalilzad and Taliban officials.
The Taliban announced the new spring offensive Friday, alarming U.S. commanders.
Operation Fath — meaning "victory” in Arabic — will be conducted across Afghanistan with the aim of "eradicating occupation” and "cleansing our Muslim homeland from invasion and corruption”, the Taliban said in a statement.
The spring offensive traditionally marks the start of the so-called fighting season, though the announcement is largely symbolic as in recent winters the Taliban have continued fighting Afghan and U.S. forces.
"Our jihadi obligation has not yet ended,” the Taliban said. "Even as large parts of our homeland have been freed from the enemy,” the Taliban said, "the foreign occupying forces continue exercising military and political influence in our Islamic country.”
"If executed, it will only yield more suffering and thousands more causalities,” Khalilzad tweeted.
"At a time when all Afghans should come together in talks to determine a common future, a call for fighting suggests the Taliban are stuck in the ways of the past,” he said.
The announcement, however, came as judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) rejected a request by the court's prosecutor to probe atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"Notwithstanding the fact all the relevant requirements are met as regards both jurisdiction and admissibility, the current circumstances of the situation in Afghanistan are such as to make the prospects for a successful investigation and prosecution extremely limited," the Hague-based court said in a statement Friday.
U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the unusual ruling as a "major international victory," claiming that the Americans and Israelis should be immune from ICC prosecution.
Trump also warned ICC of "swift and vigorous response" if the Hague-based tribunal investigates Americans and Israelis for war crimes.
Amnesty International denounced the ICC's decision as a "shocking abandonment of victims" that would "weaken the court's already questionable credibility."
Khalilzad said the United States still wanted dialogue in Afghanistan and gave a timeline of a peace plan by the end of 2019.
On Monday three U.S. Marines were killed in a Taliban blast at Bagram air base north of the city, and authorities in the capital are on high alert for new attacks.
Kabul-based military analyst Ateequllah Amarkhail said violence is likely to increase even as negotiations proceed.
The Taliban "want to enter the talks from the position of strength. Their operations are to challenge the government, and they want to have the upper hand,” Amarkhail told AFP.
He predicted "intense” fighting for 2019, with the renewed bloodshed taking a toll on civilians.
Fed up with the $45 billion annual price tag and what his military leaders termed a "stalemate”, U.S. President Donald Trump last year decided to slash the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan.
No such drawdown has happened yet and the U.S. still has about 14,000 troops in the country, nearly 18 years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban.
The Taliban's five-year rule over at least three quarters of Afghanistan came to an end following the U.S. invasion in 2001 but 18 years on, Washington is seeking truce with the militants, who still control large swathes of land in the country.
U.S. forces have remained bogged down in Afghanistan through the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Trump.