• Taliban forces changed their strategy to target provincial Afghan cities in response to US air strikes, commanders say

Pakistan’s national security adviser has said that Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban must both compromise and reach a peace settlement as the insurgents make rapid gains amid a US troop withdrawal.
Wrapping up a week of talks in Washington, Moeed Yusuf played down the level of influence on the Taliban played by Pakistan, which was one of only three nations to recognise the hardline regime that was toppled in a US invasion after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“We have made it absolutely clear – we will not accept a forceful takeover,” he told reporters. “But the world also needs to be clear that the US is invested in a political settlement.”
Yusuf said that the internationally-recognised government in Kabul, which has strained ties with Pakistan, needs to stop looking for a military victory and needs to include a broader range of Afghans in any future talks.
“There will have to be some compromise given the ground reality. But the violence will have to stop,” he said.
Yusuf said that his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan, and others in President Joe Biden’s administration did not make specific requests of Pakistan but discussed “how quickly we can get all these actors in one room to have a sincere conversation”.
He dismissed talk of Islamabad exerting leverage over the Taliban.
“Whatever limited leverage we had, we used,” he said, pointing to Pakistan encouraging the Taliban to enter talks with the Afghan government in Doha. “Now with the troop withdrawal, that leverage has logically gone down further.”
He pointed to the burden of Afghanistan’s long-running war on Pakistan, home to some 3.5mn Afghan refugees.
“We under no circumstances are prepared to see protracted instability that in the past has caused spillover into Pakistan,” he said.
Taliban militants have meanwhile switched strategy from targeting rural areas of Afghanistan to attacking provincial cities, in response to increased US air strikes after the United States said it was ending its longest war, three militant commanders said.
A regional US commander said late last month that the United States had increased air strikes to counter growing Taliban attacks, a move condemned by the religious militant group.
Fighting has been particularly heavy inside the city of Herat, near the western border with Iran, Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province in the southwest, and Kandahar in the south.
The three Taliban commanders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that they are focused on capturing Herat and Kandahar, with Lashkar Gah in their sights.
“Mullah Yaqoob argued that when US didn’t fulfil their commitment why should Taliban be made to follow the accord?” said one of the commanders, based in Kandahar, referring to the group’s military chief.
“Mullah Yaqoob has decided to capture Kandahar and Herat, and now Helmand, and then it could be Kunduz, Khost or any other province,” said the commander, saying that the military leader’s arguments had won over the group’s political office.
A Taliban spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Taliban negotiator Suhail Shaheen told Reuters that the group is continuing its policy of seizing control of rural areas, rather than focusing on cities.
The Taliban, who ruled from 1996 until 2001, had said previously they would focus on lucrative border crossings and large rural areas, though they have encircled and at times entered provincial capitals.
In recent weeks, there have been sustained attacks on Herat, Kandahar and Lashkar Gar, stretching Afghan special forces thin and killing dozens of civilians.
“The operations in Kandahar and Herat are very much important to us and our priority is to capture the two crucial airports or airbases in Kandahar and Herat,” the Taliban commander in Kandahar said.
Officials and experts said they saw signs of a change in strategy last month.
“Taliban are pushing against the provincial capitals ... not just to exert pressure but to capture them,” said Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia analyst from Stanford University.
“The main evidence is the extent of their breach of these cities. Fighting is not limited to the peripheries any more. This switch in Taliban strategy has been formalised after Eid (al-Adha), though Taliban forces were putting serious pressure on Kandahar even before Eid.”
Kandahar and Herat are the second- and third-largest cities of Afghanistan by population.
Experts said their loss would be a major political blow to the government and could potentially trigger major realignments in favour of the Taliban.
“Capture of Kandahar means a lot to the Taliban. It was their capital and occupying the city is great morale boost for the Taliban ... this is something they cherish and for Kandahar, Taliban can risk international ire,” said an Asian diplomatic source closely following the Taliban.
A Western security official said: “The fact they are attacking (cities) is a sharp reaction to air support offered by the US ... the Taliban have proven that now they will not just stop with controlling trading points.”
It is not clear whether US airstrikes would continue after foreign forces complete their withdrawal.
A spokesperson for US forces in Afghanistan and the US embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Experts and officials say that for now a military takeover of Kabul would be much more difficult for the Taliban than provincial capitals, but that the group could increase bombings and attacks to undermine security and public morale.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack at the acting defence minister’s residence on Tuesday and warned of further violence.

First resettled Afghan refugees and families arrive in Canada
The first group of Afghan interpreters, embassy staff and families that Canada is resettling amid threats of Taliban reprisals have arrived, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said yesterday.
Many Afghans who worked with Canada and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) countries fear Taliban violence as US forces depart.
Canada announced last month that it would resettle the Afghans amid what it called a dynamic and deteriorating situation.
“Today brings with it a sense of hope, optimism and a sigh of relief for those first Afghan refugees who touched down last night,” Mendicino told a news conference.
Canada will not announce the names of the people involved or where they will be resettled, he said.
Ottawa says several thousand people will be eligible.
Washington announced this week a programme that may allow thousands more Afghans, who may be Taliban targets due to their US affiliations, to have the opportunity to resettle as refugees.
Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended a decade ago, after which the country resettled about 800 Afghans who had worked for the country as interpreters or in other roles. – Reuters

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