Taliban fighters have attacked Afghan government troops and civilians across five southeastern districts in a days-long offensive heralding the start of the summer fighting season in the mountainous areas along the border with Pakistan.
Afghan government officials said Wednesday that at least 35 civilians, 40 government troops and more than 100 Taliban attackers had been killed since the offensive began Sunday in Helmand province's Sangin district. Fighting has since spread to four other districts along the restive border, driving more than 2,000 families from their homes, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi reported.
Fighting traditionally flares in late spring when snow clears from the rugged mountains along the restive border.
The surge in attacks on Afghan government troops this week, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility in a statement Wednesday, has spurred concerns as Helmand had been seen as a success story of Afghan national troops keeping the Taliban at bay as the U.S.-led foreign security contingent draws down its mission.
All troops of the International Security Assistance Force are scheduled to leave by the end of this year. Negotiations on a small foreign force of trainers and advisors are hamstrung by the protracted election process to decide a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
The Obama administration has said as many as 10,000 U.S. troops may remain after the international mission concludes at the end of this year if the Afghan leadership signs a bilateral security agreement with Washington.
Karzai supported a post-2014 force during negotiations on the accord but refused to sign it last year, saying the decision should be made by his successor. The presidential election that began in April is expected to conclude in late July, with an Aug. 2 inauguration date set.
Acting Assistant Defense Secretary Kelly E. Magsamen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that the U.S. government is prepared to continue assisting Afghan forces in the fight against terrorism.
"A post-2014 U.S. military presence will have two objectives," Magsamen said. "Training, advising and assisting the Afghan national security forces as part of a NATO-led Resolute Support mission, and supporting counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda."
On Wednesday, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a news conference at alliance headquarters in Brussels that Resolute Support was aimed at providing Afghanistan with security assistance after the active combat mission ends in December.
"But it is the Afghans who must take the next step," Rasmussen said, referring to the long-delayed decision from Kabul on a future foreign force. "The necessary security agreements must be signed soon. Otherwise, we will not be able to keep any troops in Afghanistan from next year."
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