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Peace in Afghanistan is more elusive as the Taliban shrugs at the talks

KABUL, Afghanistan – With the Taliban downplaying the Afghan government's latest offers of ceasefire and negotiations, peace seems as elusive as it has been for decades in this war-torn country, both for front-line troops as for civilians who face frequent attacks.

The Taliban have been gaining ground in their annual spring offensive, ignoring President Ashraf Ghani's calls for talks. Hoping to end the war of almost 17 years, he had offered unprecedented incentives, including passports for insurgents and their families.

Ghani also offered to work to eliminate international sanctions against the group's leaders and allow the Taliban to open the official headquarters in the capital, Kabul.

But for that to happen, he stressed, first a ceasefire must be agreed and the Taliban must become a political group rather than an armed insurgency.

In June, the Taliban agreed to a three-day ceasefire during the Eid al-Fitr holiday that closes the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the first for the group, but rejected a subsequent governmental call to extend it.

They keep the only conversations they would take In part they would be with the United States in their key demand: the withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently reiterated the insurgents' permanent line that "the Americans are the ones who continue the war, supporting our enemies and bombing our country."

"So, if there are talks, they should be with them (Americans)," Mujahid told The Associated Press by telephone. "Otherwise, they will not have any results."

Since the beginning of the year, the Taliban have intensified their attacks. On January 27, a suicide bomber drove an ambulance full of explosives through a checkpoint in Kabul, killing more than 100 people and wounding about 235.

The Taliban claimed that attack, as well as another, a Week before, in which militants stormed a luxury hotel in Kabul, killing 22 people, including 14 foreigners, and unleashing a 13-hour gun battle with security forces.

At a meeting in Kabul in June, the Afghan Council of Ulema – an organization of Muslim clerics and scholars – issued an edict against suicide attacks, saying they are "haram", banned by Islamic law.

When the meeting was over and the clerics were about to disband, another suicide bomber attacked near the site, killing seven people. 19659013] Although that attack was claimed by the affiliate of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, the Taliban issued a statement denouncing the conference and others as a "US process" and urged the clerics to reject such meetings.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have expanded their reach in the countryside. According to Mujahid, they now control 54 of the 388 districts across the country, with five districts seized in the spring offensive this year.

At least seven of the 14 districts in the southern province of Helmand are completely under Taliban control. Analysts say that about 80 percent of Helmand – estimated for its large poppy fields – has been under Taliban control since 2004, although urban centers had remained under government control.

Najib Danish, spokesman of the Ministry of the Interior, denies the claim of the Taliban. 11 districts throughout the country.

But even the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction itself, or SIGAR, says that more than half of Afghanistan is under the direct control of the Taliban or under its influence.

United States and NATO have In recent years, the forces have been reduced from a maximum of almost 150,000, and in 2014 changed to a support role and counterterrorism. The Afghan security forces, which number 195,000 soldiers and more than 150,000 policemen, have fought to fight the insurgency.

Pressure is being put on for some type of peace process to be launched.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used an unexpected trip to Afghanistan on Monday to intensify the Trump administration's calls for peace talks.

"The region and the world are tired of what is happening here in the same way that the Afghan people are no longer interested in seeing the war," said Pompeo.

On Tuesday, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation based in Saudi Arabia, with 57 nations, opened a two-day conference to encourage Afghan peace talks.

And NATO leaders will be discussing Afghanistan on Thursday at its summit in Brussels during which the alliance is expected to commit to continue funding the Afghan army and its training mission.

But many Afghan troops are resentful of the bleak prospects for peace.

"The president gave them (Taliban) an opportunity and announced a ceasefire, but despite this they attacked our checkpoints, ambushed our forces and nothing changed," says Mohammad Din, a 27-year-old police officer north of Kunduz. province that has been in uniform for the past seven years.

Abdul Agha, 33, lost his right arm and both eyes in the eastern province of Logar when his convoy hit a roadside bomb three years ago. The former policeman said he has not been able to see his two daughters, born after the attack.

"It took away the ability to see the brightness and beauty of life," Agha said.

Many entrepreneurs and investors have left the country, according to Abdul Karim Arefi, deputy director of the Afghanistan Industry and Investment Board.

"People are discouraged, people do not have enough confidence to import goods and bring business," said Arefi.

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