KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Dispatches) -- Afghan forces clashed Friday with Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak after launching an operation to retake the key border crossing with Pakistan, as regional capitals stepped up efforts to get the warring sides talking.
Dozens of wounded Taliban fighters were being treated at a Pakistan hospital near the border after fierce overnight fighting, AFP correspondents at the scene reported.
The fight for the border comes as a war of words heated up between the Kabul government and Islamabad after the Afghan Vice President accused the Pakistani military of providing “close air support to Taliban in certain areas”.
Residents of Spin Boldak, which fell to the Taliban on Wednesday, said the Taliban and the army were battling in the main bazaar of the border town. “There is heavy fighting,” said Muhammad Zahir.
The border crossing provides direct access to Pakistan’s Balochistan province, where the Taliban’s top leadership has been based for decades, along with an unknown number of reserve fighters who regularly enter Afghanistan to help bolster their ranks.
As fighting continued, Pakistan said Thursday it would hold a special conference on Afghanistan in Islamabad at the weekend, although Taliban officials had not been invited.
There were signs too that official talks in Doha -- which have stalled for months -- could stutter back to life.
An aide to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told local media his government had asked for the Islamabad conference to be postponed as negotiators were already heading to Qatar.
The Taliban have capitalized on the last stages of the withdrawal of foreign troops to launch a series of lightning offensives across the country, capturing a swath of districts and border crossings, and encircling provincial capitals.
The speed and scale of the Taliban onslaught has caught many by surprise, with analysts saying it appears aimed at forcing the government to sue for peace on the insurgents’ terms or suffer complete military defeat.
An Afghan official said Thursday a local ceasefire with Taliban leaders had been negotiated for Qala-i-Naw the Badghis provincial capital that saw fierce street fighting last week.
Iran Urges End to Violence
Iran said it supports Afghan peace talks, while the country’s former head consul in Herat said the U.S. has prevented the formation of a strong government and a professional and national army in Afghanistan.
“Iran supports an end to the violence in Afghanistan and a solution to the crisis through dialogue,” Seyyed Rasoul Mousavi, head of the West Asia Department at Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said.
Mousavi made the remarks during a Kabul meeting with Abdullah Abdullah, head of Kabul’s High Council for National Reconciliation. “The Iranian people and government want an end to the long war in Afghanistan,” he reiterated.
Abdullah, for his part, thanked Iran’s support for the peace process in Afghanistan and underscored the importance of cooperation between regional countries to establish peace and stability in Afghanistan.
War is not the solution and no side can benefit from the continuation of the clashes, he said. He also stressed the necessity of a peaceful solution to end the disputes, adding that the Afghan government will not allow anyone to impose its will on the country.
Last week, Tehran hosted a new round of intra-Afghan talks between the country’s government and the Taliban in the hope of a better future for Afghanistan.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif pointed to the United States’ defeat in Afghanistan, saying the American forces’ more than two decades of presence on the Afghan soil has led to widespread destruction in the country.
Iran’s former head consul in Herat said Friday the U.S. has prevented the formation of a strong government and a professional
and national army in Afghanistan.
“If Afghanistan’s Army is not capable of fighting instability as it should, it is due to the policies of the U.S., which has made Afghanistan’s defense and military power dependent on itself,” Hassan Kazemi Qomi said in an interview with IRNA.
He noted that the legacy that the American forces left behind is a crisis of political, economic and security dimensions in Afghanistan, making the Afghan government, army and police dependent on foreign forces.
Kazemi Qomi also said the U.S. withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan is based on several reasons, including its failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Palestine, which inflicted heavy costs and losses on the Americans.
“By implementing the New Middle East plot, the U.S. was seeking to secure the domination of the Zionist regime over the region and to confront the Axis of Resistance and the Islamic Republic, but it did not succeed,” he noted.
The former diplomat said another reason behind the withdrawal is that the U.S. wants to reduce its vulnerabilities in the region and also focus on dealing with its domestic economic and social crises.
Russia Warns of War Spillover
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of a risk of the violence in Afghanistan spilling over to neighboring countries.
“The threat of such a scenario remains a serious obstacle to the involvement of Afghanistan in regional cooperation,” Lavrov told a plenary session of a high-level international conference in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent on Friday.
He said the situation in Afghanistan has been “rapidly degrading” in recent days.
The top Russian diplomat said that the uncertainty had sharply increased following the “hasty” U.S. withdrawal from the country, which he described as a de facto admission that America’s mission in the country had failed.
Lavrov said the Afghan crisis was also exacerbating the threat of terrorist attacks as well as the problem of illegal drug trafficking, which he said had reached an unprecedented level.