Violence in Afghanistan Worsens as U.S.-Taliban Peace Talks Plod On

Violence has intensified in recent months across Afghanistan as the opposing sides in the war try to turn battlefield blows into gains in negotiations over the country’s political future.

An agreement between the Taliban and the United States is expected to be finalized soon and provide a schedule for the conditional withdrawal of the remaining 14,000 American troops and their NATO partners. In return, the Taliban have pledged to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies from Afghan soil.

But as the talks continue, the violence worsens. On Wednesday, a powerful Taliban truck bomb exploded outside a police station in Kabul, the Afghan capital, killing 14 people and injuring at least 145 others as peace negotiations between the militants and American diplomats were underway.

The United Nations said July was the deadliest month in Afghanistan in the last couple of years, with 1,500 civilians killed or wounded.

While the United Nations blamed last month’s increase on large Taliban explosions, it said in an earlier report that Afghan forces and their American allies were responsible for more civilian deaths than the Taliban during the first six months of the year.

Often, even heavily populated urban centers like Kabul feel like battlegrounds in a war that lost clear front lines long ago.

The explosion on Wednesday, following repeated warnings from the United Nations about rising civilian casualties, was the latest to strike a heavily populated area during the morning rush hour. The blast sent plumes of thick smoke into the sky, wrecked the police station and a nearby army recruitment center and shattered windows within a radius of about a mile.

The explosion left a large crater, and wreckage all around.

“My house is destroyed,” said Mohammad Nayeem, 50. “It has all become a ruin. My house is nearby, but even houses about a kilometer away have been damaged.”

Outside the police station, a man asked an officer about his son, who he said had been locked up inside. The officer told him to go look among the wounded or dead at hospitals. As a crowd gathered, the father said he had searched the hospitals first.

As if numbed by the frequency of such violence, the officer tried to shrug it off, telling the man that perhaps his son was bad, and that whatever his fate had been in the explosion was his punishment. The crowd laughed. The distressed father, crying, rushed to look for his son elsewhere.

In a sign of how widespread the violence has become, Afghan security forces conducted nearly 100 large military operations, small commando raids and airstrikes across about a dozen of the country’s 34 provinces in the last 24 hours, the Defense Ministry said, adding that it had killed at least 84 Taliban fighters and wounded dozens of others.

Both sides often exaggerate casualty tolls, which are difficult to verify independently.

Most of the operations by Afghan forces, which are heavily reliant on American airpower, happen in the countryside. On a daily basis, Afghan and American planes strike Taliban targets, which are often mixed in with civilians.

The Taliban use a different deadly tactic: truck bombs and suicide attacks, often in urban centers.

In a city like Kabul, which has ballooned into a metropolis of about five million people, even an attack on a military target often leaves enormous civilian casualties. Afghan officials said civilians accounted for more than two-thirds of the casualties in Wednesday’s attack.

It was the second time over the past two years that the same area in western Kabul — with its police station and army recruitment center — has been targeted in huge bombings. The offices, as well as the civilian areas around them, had only recently been rebuilt after the prior bombing.

The attack came after a tense night across Kabul, with explosions heard in several parts of the city past midnight. The Afghan intelligence agency said Wednesday morning in a statement that it had raided three cells of the Islamic State in different parts of the city, resulting in clashes with suspected bomb makers.

Although the Taliban are responsible for much of the war’s insurgent violence, a small affiliate of the Islamic State has gained a stubborn foothold in the country’s east and has claimed that it carried out repeated suicide attacks in urban centers.

The violence is intensifying as American diplomats are working out the final details of a preliminary agreement with the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha. A deal would pave the way for immediate direct negotiations between the Taliban and other Afghans over the political future of the country.

While the United States seems to have assured that element of its peace plan — direct negotiations between the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, after the announcement of a schedule for troop withdrawals — there is little clarity on the American demand for a comprehensive cease-fire.

Late into the evening on Wednesday, American diplomats and Taliban officials continued their negotiations behind closed doors at a marbled-floor venue. Taliban officials took a prayer break. They checked their phones — including for the latest details of the attack — as they walked back to the hall. The setting, under a calm pink sunset that descended on palm trees around the venue, was far from the heartbreak in Kabul.

In Kabul, people repeated an old exercise: sweeping up broken glass, fixing broken shop windows and getting back to work to make a living.

“This store is the only hope I have,” said one shopkeeper, who was too devastated to share his name. “I don’t know why I haven’t left the country. This is a graveyard that keeps eating people.”

“We are tired, we are suffocating,” Ghulam Ali, a survivor, told a local news channel. “When we leave home in the morning, we don’t know if we will make it back.”