Taliban prisoner issue almost resolved, peace talks expected ‘soon’: sources, officials

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Peace talks between warring Afghan factions are expected to start as soon as they iron out their main differences over the release of the “most dangerous” Taliban prisoners, officials and sources from both sides said.

Despite a major push by the United States, there has been a delay in the intra-Afghan talks as the Afghan government and some key NATO members are uncomfortable about the release of Taliban commanders accused of conducting large-scale attacks that killed civilians in recent years.

An Afghan government source said the prisoner issue had largely been resolved and they would release an alternative set of prisoners with talks expected to start mid-July.

“The Taliban agreed because it was delaying the talks,” he said, adding the government had also demanded a guarantee from the Taliban that it was no longer holding any Afghan security force prisoners.

A source close to the Taliban said the group was willing to move forward so long as most of the 5,000 prisoners demanded were released.

“I don’t think releasing or not releasing 200 or 300 prisoners will matter in the process, the Taliban can agree for (those) prisoners to remain in Afghan government custody,” the source said.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen could not be reached for comment but has reiterated in recent weeks that the group expects the full terms of their February agreement with the United States, including the release of 5,000 prisoners, to be implemented before talks can start.

Pakistan, seen as a key regional player in getting the Taliban to peace talks, said it expected negotiations to begin very soon and was optimistic that sticking points, including the prisoner issue, would be resolved.

“I think we are almost there,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told Reuters in an interview on Thursday. “The impediments have been addressed one by one and now there is a general agreement that this is the way forward…I’m expecting things to be begin quickly.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Islamic State attacks Kabul gathering, killing at least 32

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi

KABUL (Reuters) – Islamic State gunmen opened fire at a ceremony in Kabul on Friday, killing at least 32 people in the first major attack in the city since the United States reached an agreement with the Afghan Taliban on a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A top Afghan political leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was present along with other key political figures and escaped unharmed.

Some 81 people were wounded, a government spokesman said, adding that the death toll could rise.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Amaq news agency reported on its telegram channel.

The Taliban, who were ousted from power by U.S.-led troops in 2001, denied involvement almost immediately.

The gathering marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Abdul Ali Mazari, an ethnic Hazara leader who was killed in 1995 after being taken prisoner by the Taliban.

Several people were killed in a similar attack on the same commemoration last year, which Islamic State had also said was carried out by its militants.

“The attack started with a boom, apparently a rocket landed in the area, Abdullah and some other politicians … escaped the attack unhurt,” Abdullah’s spokesman, Fraidoon Kwazoon, who was also present, told Reuters by telephone.

Broadcaster Tolo News showed live footage of people running for cover as gunfire was heard.

Afghan defense forces continued to fight gunmen throughout the day, finally securing the area by killing about three gunmen in the late afternoon, according to ministry of interior spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.

President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that the attack was “a crime against humanity and against the national unity of Afghanistan”.

Abdullah was runner-up in the last three Afghan presidential elections, each of which he disputed. He has served as chief executive of a coalition government since 2014 and is also a former foreign minister.

Ghani said he had telephoned Abdullah, his longtime political rival. Abdullah is contesting an Electoral Commission announcement last month declaring Ghani the winner of September’s presidential election.

Dozens of relatives gathered at the morgue of a hospital not far from the blast, with many breaking down in tears as they waited to identify their loved ones.

Ambulances and stretchers bustled back and forth at the hospital to deliver the wounded for treatment.

“I was at the ceremony when gunshots started. I rushed toward the door to get out of the area but suddenly my foot was hit by a bullet,” Mukhtar Jan told Reuters from a stretcher at the hospital.

Ali Attayee, at the hospital to support his wounded brother, said: “Those who committed this crime want to destroy our people… We’re sorry for those committing such crimes.”

Representatives of the United States, European Union and NATO condemned the attack.

“We strongly condemn today’s vicious attack…We stand with Afghanistan for peace,” the U.S. charge d’affaires in Kabul, Ross Wilson, wrote on Twitter.

The attack was one of the largest on civilians in Afghanistan in a year.

“Horrific attack in Kabul today…heartbreaking and unacceptable. We are tired of war and violence,” said Shahrzad Akbar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Hazaras are mostly Shi’ite Muslims. Minority Shi’ites have been repeatedly attacked by Sunni militants in Afghanistan.

The United States has sought to spearhead efforts toward a lasting peace arrangement. Violence decreased during a seven-day hold-down accord with the Taliban before last Saturday’s deal, though the Taliban have since resumed attacks on Afghan forces.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Orooj Hakimi, Rupam Jain, Samargul Zwak, Sayed Hassib and Hesham Abdul Khalek; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Robert Birsel, Kevin Liffey, Peter Graff and Nick Macfie)

Afghan president renews calls for peace, demands ceasefire

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during an event with Afghan security forces in Kabul, Afghanistan September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Hamid Shalizi and Hameed Farzad

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a renewed call for peace on Monday but insisted the Taliban must observe a ceasefire, as he sought to regain a hold on the peace process following the surprise collapse of talks between the United States and the militants.

Ghani’s comments, to a meeting of military leaders in Kabul, came amid uncertainty over the future of efforts to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan after U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of talks with the Taliban at the weekend.

“We are ready for peace talks but if the Taliban think they can scare us, look at these warriors,” Ghani said, declaring that peace could not be unconditional as he repeated demands for a ceasefire that the Taliban have so far refused.

“Peace without a ceasefire is impossible.”

Trump’s refusal to meet the Taliban has left it unclear whether talks can be revived or whether the two sides, locked in a broad stalemate, will continue fighting.

The insurgents’ determination to step up both attacks on provincial centers and suicide bombings even as peace talks were taking place was a key factor in pushing Trump to cancel talks days after a U.S. soldier was killed in the capital Kabul.

The end of the talks has fueled fears of a further increase in violence across Afghanistan, with heightened security warnings in the Kabul and other centers ahead of a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28.

The talks, which had been secret until Trump unexpectedly announced their cancellation on Saturday, would have brought the U.S. president face-to-face with senior Taliban leaders at the presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland.

WITHDRAWAL TIMETABLE

Ghani, who was sidelined from months of negotiations between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives, had been deeply suspicious of the talks, which sought to agree a timetable for a withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.

A draft accord agreed last week would have seen some 5,000 U.S. troops withdrawn over coming months in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.

Afghan officials had argued for months that it was a mistake for the United States to agree a deal on troop withdrawals separately from a broader peace accord.

The collapse of the talks appears to have strengthened Ghani’s position, in part by removing lingering doubts over whether the twice-delayed election – in which he is favorite to win a second five-year term – would go ahead.

Until Saturday’s surprise announcement by Trump, many politicians and Western diplomats had argued that peace talks should take priority over an election seen as a potential obstacle to a deal with the Taliban.

Now officials say there is no excuse for the vote not to be held, with election authorities promising that the problems that dogged parliamentary elections last year will not be repeated.

Ghani, a former World Bank official who came to power after a bitterly disputed election in 2014, has kept up campaigning even as the talks went on, adapting to the worsening security situation by holding “virtual rallies” that address supporters in various provinces through a video link-up.

“Afghanistan is now at a critical juncture because of the election and the peace process,” he said.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visits Kabul, hopes for a peace deal before September 1

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks from a helicopter with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass, as Pompeo returns to his plane after an unannounced visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, June 25, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Tuesday to discuss ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and the security situation ahead of Afghan presidential polls in September.

Pompeo stopped over on his way to New Delhi for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other officials.

His visit to Afghanistan, which lasted about seven hours, comes ahead of a seventh round of peace talks between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials aimed at finding a political settlement to end the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan. The next round of peace talks is scheduled to begin on June 29 in Doha.

“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo said.

The talks between the United States and the Taliban will focus on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan and on a Taliban guarantee that militants will not plot attacks from Afghan soil.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that were prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear, we’ve not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” said Pompeo.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.

In return for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the United States is demanding the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

“We agree that peace is our highest priority and that Afghanistan must never again serve as a platform for international terrorism.”

He said the two sides are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitment to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for “terrorists”.

The hardline Islamist group now controls more Afghan territory than at any time since it was toppled from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

At least 3,804 civilians were killed in the war last year, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Afghan soldiers, police and Taliban were also killed.

Taliban leaders nevertheless vowed this month to sustain the fight until their objectives were reached.

But momentum for talks with the Taliban is steadily building, with a special U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, pushing the process and insurgent leaders showing serious interest in negotiating for the first time.

Ghani has also offered repeatedly to talk with the Taliban but the group insists it will not deal directly with the Ghani government.

“All sides agree that finalizing a U.S.-Taliban understanding on terrorism and foreign troop presence will open the door to intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiation,” Pompeo said, adding that next step is at the heart of the U.S. effort.

“We are not and will not negotiate with the Taliban on behalf of the government or people of Afghanistan.”

Pompeo’s meeting with Ghani came as members of the opposition party held a large public gathering in Kabul to protest against his overstaying in power after his five-year term ended in May.

Ghani has refused to step down and Afghanistan’s Supreme Court says he can stay in office until the delayed presidential election, now scheduled for September, in which he will seek a second term.

Political opponents of Ghani met Pompeo and U.S. officials.

Preparation for the polls and a crucial chance to end the war with the Taliban are running in parallel, with international diplomats and politicians based in Kabul trying to prevent them running into each other.

Many Afghans are concerned that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, in its haste to end the war, could push for concessions that might weaken the democratic gains of the post-Taliban era.

(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Afghan contractor listed as killed in blast is alive

An Afghan military convoy drives past the site of a car bomb attack where U.S soldiers were killed near Bagram air base, Afghanistan April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Afghan contractor who was believed to have been killed in a car bomb near Kabul is alive, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.

Colonel David Butler, a spokesman for U.S. Forces- Afghanistan, told Reuters the Afghan contractor was initially believed to have been killed along with three other U.S. service members in the blast near Bagram air base close to Kabul.

It was only later that they found out the contractor was alive.

The blast, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, also wounded three U.S. service members.

Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even though Taliban militants have held several rounds of talks with U.S. officials about a peace settlement. The talks began late last year, raising hopes for an end to the conflict.

Monday’s attack was one of the deadliest against U.S. personnel in recent months. In November, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. service members near the central Afghan city of Ghazni.

The war has taken a much larger toll on Afghan security forces and civilians.

President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, said about 45,000 members of Afghanistan’s security forces have been killed since he took office in September 2014, which works out to an average of 849 per month.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Taliban rejects pleas by Afghan elders for a ceasefire extension

FILE PHOTO: Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018.REUTERS/Parwiz/File Photo

By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban on Monday rejected pleas by Afghan elders and activists for an extension of this month’s ceasefire and said they amounted to a call for surrender to foreign forces.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed the peace “slogans” and urged civil society activists and others not to join movements he said played into the hands of U.S. and international forces the Taliban wants to force from the country.

“They are not speaking about the occupation or the withdrawal of foreigners. Their objective is that we lay down our weapons and accept the regime imposed by the invaders,” he said in a statement.

A truce over the three day Eid al-Fitr festival this month, during which unarmed Taliban fighters mingled with soldiers and civilians in the capital Kabul and other cities has given fresh impetus to the calls for peace, although many also dismiss the ceasefire as a Taliban trick.

A small group of peace marchers who came to Kabul on foot from the southern province of Helmand this month have also gained prominence, with pleas to all sides to end a conflict which has now lasted for 40 years.

“Tribal elders may not be able to bring about peace and create a ceasefire to the whole country but they can for their own districts and they will,” said Dawlat Wazir, an elder in Jani Khil district in the eastern province of Paktia.

In Jani Khil, elders held a meeting that drew hundreds of people at the weekend, calling on the government and Taliban forces to refrain from fighting in their area.

“We are so fed up with operations by government forces in our areas that trigger fighting for days,” said Malek Sakhto, one of the elders behind the meeting. “We’re pleading with the government and the Taliban to agree on a ceasefire and stop killing each other and civilians.”

The success of such local initiatives is mixed and may stand little chance as military operations pick up.

President Ashraf Ghani ordered government forces to stop offensive operations against the Taliban for another 10 days after the end of the ceasefire but there has since been fierce fighting in several areas.

In Logar, to the south of the capital Kabul, local elders and religious scholars have been trying to arrange a ceasefire in Azra district, according to Abdul Wali, a member of the Logar provincial council.

He said an informal accord had been reached but local people were still waiting for an official announcement from the Taliban shadow governor for Logar, Muallah Ismail Akhondzada.

In Kunar province, on the border with Pakistan, another group of walkers is making its way to Kabul, a statement from the governor’s office said.

(Additional reporting by Samiullah Paiwand, Qadir Sediqi; Editing by James Mackenzie and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Suicide bomber kills 14 after Afghan clerics outlaw suicide bombings

Afghan security forces keep watch at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – A motorcycle suicide bomber killed 14 people near a gathering of Muslim clerics in the Afghan capital on Monday after they had issued a fatwa against suicide bombings, officials said, in the latest in a series of attacks to hit Kabul.

The bomb exploded at the entrance to a giant tent, near residential buildings in the west of Kabul, after most the clerics had left, a witness said. Women living nearby were crying as they gathered with their families.

The bomb killed seven clerics, four security officers and three people whose identities were unknown, a senior government official said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which underlines deteriorating security ahead of parliamentary and district council elections set for Oct. 20.

The Taliban, fighting to restore strict Islamic rule after their 2001 ouster at the hands of U.S.-led troops, denied involvement.

More than 2,000 religious scholars from across the country began meeting on Sunday at the Loya Jirga (Grand Council) tent, denouncing years of conflict. They issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, outlawing suicide bombings and demanding that Taliban militants restore peace to allow foreign troops to leave.

A series of bombings in Kabul has killed dozens of people in recent months and shown no sign of easing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

On Wednesday, gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers stormed the heavily fortified headquarters of the interior ministry, battling security forces for more than two hours.

In April, two explosions in Kabul killed at least 26 people, including nine journalists who had arrived to report on an initial blast and were targeted by a suicide bomber.

A week earlier, 60 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a voter registration center in the city.

Militant group Islamic State has claimed responsibility for many attacks in Kabul but security officials say several are much more likely to be the work of the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban.

Provincial cities have also been hit as the Taliban have stepped up operations across the country since they announced the beginning of their annual spring offensive in April.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Taliban emerge from hiding to battle Afghan forces in city near Iran

Residents look at an Army vehicle which was damaged during battle between Afghan security forces and Taliban in Farah province, Afghanistan May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Storay Karimi and Mohammad Stanekzai

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Taliban fighters emerged from hiding in the dead of night to launch attacks in the Afghan city of Farah, battling government forces who thought they had cleared out the insurgents following heavy clashes earlier in the week, residents and officials said.

The heavily armed fighters had gone to ground in residential areas following their surprise attack on Tuesday, when they nearly overran Farah, before Afghan troops backed by U.S. air power fought them off.

“From one side, there were Taliban and from the other side, war planes firing from the air. People were terrified,” said city shopkeeper Qudratullah.

The Taliban fighters emerged from their hiding places about an hour before midnight on Wednesday, some of them firing on security forces from rooftops, with gunbattles raging into the early hours of Thursday.

At least one suicide bomb attack was launched near the city’s police headquarters.

“The city has been turned into a military zone, people are worried and shops are closed,” said resident Baz Mohammad.

“After what happened last night, anything can happen any time.”

Schools were also declared closed for the whole of the month of Ramadan, which began on Thursday, because of the security situation, said Kabir Haqmal, media advisor to the ministry of education.

After months of relative calm over the winter, the latest fighting underlines the challenge facing the Kabul government and its U.S. allies who are struggling to contain the Taliban insurgency.

The United States has sent thousands of extra trainers to help Afghan forces and stepped up air strikes dramatically, with the aim of pressing the Taliban to the negotiating table, but there has been little to indicate the plan is working.

BLAMING IRAN

In Farah, U.S. forces have provided air support with A-10 attack aircraft and pilotless drones, while the Afghan air force has conducted numerous strikes with its own helicopters and A-29 ground attack aircraft.

Officials had earlier said the city was clear of Taliban but confirmed the fighting overnight.

“A number of Taliban clashed with Afghan forces in different parts of the city,” said Fazel Ahmad Sherzad, the city’s police chief.

“Right now there is no fighting but a search and clearance operation is underway,” he said.

He said a number of foreign fighters appeared to be operating with the Taliban but there was no way of independently verifying that. Officials in Farah often blame neighboring Iran for helping the Taliban in the area.

Fighting has increased across Afghanistan in recent weeks with government forces under heavy pressure in provinces including Badakhshan, Baghlan and Faryab in the north, Farah in the west and Zabul and Ghazni south of the capital Kabul.

In addition, Kabul itself has been targeted by a wave of suicide attacks that have killed and wounded hundreds of people since the beginning of the year.

Remote and sparsely populated Farah, on the border with Iran has seen heavy fighting for months with Taliban forces inflicting heavy casualties on the police and army and even on elite special forces units.

(Additional reporting by Qadir Sediqi in KABUL; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Witnessing blast in Kabul: ‘You can still see the smoke in the pictures’

fghan security forces are seen at the site of a second blast in Kabul, Afghanistan April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

KABUL (Reuters) – The pictures show journalists killed in the second of two explosions that rocked Kabul during the morning rush hour. They were taken by Reuters photographer Omar Sobhani, 10 or 15 seconds after a suicide bomber, apparently targeting members of the media, detonated his explosives.

In one image, a cameraman from Al Jazeera can be seen kneeling wounded against the kerb, while nearby a journalist from Afghanistan’s Radio Azadi is being helped by an old man who was passing by when the blast went off.

Sobhani, who began working for Reuters as a driver and fixer in 2002 and has been a photographer since 2007, was among the journalists who had raced to cover the initial explosion on Monday morning in the Shashdarak area of central Kabul, not far from the U.S. embassy.

“I had been waiting with other journalists to cover an earlier blast. It was a normal scene. It was about 8:30 in the morning, there were security forces guarding the site of the first blast and quite a few people going to work and we were just waiting with other journalists,” he says.

“Then we heard a huge bang just behind me. I survived because I was standing in front of a concrete pillar that shielded me from the force of the explosion, but I saw all my friends and colleagues on the ground and a lot of them were dead with a few wounded – you can still see the smoke from the explosion in the pictures.”

Afghanistan’s interior ministry said the suicide bomber who detonated the second blast had posed as a media worker, showing a press card to security forces and standing among the gathered journalists before blowing himself up.

Sobhani was slightly wounded, but was able to quickly capture some images of the scene before withdrawing to seek help.

“I was shocked but I could see there was nothing to be done and I shot some pictures immediately before leaving,” he said. “I could feel some pain and there was some shrapnel in my shoulder, which was taken out at the hospital.”

Eight of the journalists were from Afghan outlets: two reporters from the Mashal TV, a cameraman and a reporter working for 1TV, three reporters from Radio Azadi and one from Tolo News, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee.

The French news agency Agence France-Presse said its chief photographer in Afghanistan, Shah Marai, was killed.

For Sobhani and the other journalists at the scene, many of the victims of the attack were people they had worked alongside, covering the bloodshed in Afghanistan, for years.

“The people killed were all innocent people, people just going about their business or journalists just doing their job. They’re showing the truth of what’s happening, it’s not politics, it’s very important so that people can know what’s happening,” he said.

“It’s a challenging job with a lot of problems, you see war and violence all the time, but it’s important to make sure people know. I was very shocked, these were colleagues of mine, and one was a very good friend.”

(Reporting by Omar Sobhani and James Mackenzie; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Taliban active in 70 percent of Afghanistan, BBC study finds

Afghan security forces take position on a roof of a building the site of a blast and gunfire between Taliban and Afghan forces in PD 6 in Kabul, Afghanistan March 1, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Taliban are openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, fully controlling 4 percent of the country and demonstrating an open physical presence in another 66 percent, according to a BBC study published on Tuesday.

The BBC estimate, which it said was based on conversations with more than 1,200 individual sources in all districts of the South Asian country, was significantly higher than the most recent assessment by the NATO-led coalition.

The coalition said on Tuesday that the Taliban contested or controlled only 44 percent of Afghan districts as of October 2017.

Afghanistan has been reeling over the past nine days from a renewed spate of violence that is adding scrutiny to the latest, more aggressive U.S.-backed strategy to bolster Afghan forces battling the Taliban in a 16-year-old war.

A bomb hidden in an ambulance struck the city center and killed more than 100 people, just over a week after an attack on the Hotel Intercontinental, also in Kabul, which left more than 20 people dead, including four U.S. citizens.

The BBC counted 399 districts in Afghanistan, but the NATO-led force counted 407. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.

The BBC study said the Afghan government controlled 122 districts, or about 30 percent of the country. Still, it noted, that did not mean that they were free from Taliban attacks.

“Kabul and other major cities, for example, suffered major attacks – launched from adjacent areas, or by sleeper cells – during the research period, as well as before and after,” the report said.

Asked about the BBC’s study, the Pentagon did not comment directly, but pointed to the latest figures by the NATO-led coalition asserting that about 56 percent of Afghanistan’s territory was under Afghan government control or influence.

Captain Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for the coalition in Kabul, said the BBC estimate overstated the militants’ “influence impact”.

“This is a criminal network, not a government in waiting,” Gresback said in an emailed statement.

“What really matters is not the number of districts held, but population controlled. RS assesses that around 12 percent of the population is actually under full Taliban control,” he said, referring to the Resolute Support mission.

The study by Britain’s public broadcaster quoted a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani playing down the findings.

The BBC study also said Islamic State had a presence in 30 districts, but noted it did not fully control any of them.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, addional reporting by Robert Birsel in KABUL; Editing by G Crosse and Nick Macfie)