Just weeks after the start of the first direct talks between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban militant group opened to much hype, the historic negotiations aimed at ending the bloody 19-year war are in danger of collapse.
Relentless Taliban attacks are killing scores of Afghans every week, sapping a fragile trust between the sides.
Afghan and Taliban negotiators remain deadlocked at the negotiating table, unable even to agree on a framework and agenda for the talks.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military and the Taliban are engaged in a growing war of words over the terms of a deal to withdraw all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
"The peace process has stalled, and during that stall the tendency of all parties is to revert back to their 'normal' mode of operations," says Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group. "For the Taliban, a militant insurgency, that mode is waging war."
Over the past several weeks, Taliban militants have staged assaults and bombings in 24 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Afghan officials say, killing scores of government forces and civilians.
The Taliban ambushed and killed at least 40 soldiers and police in the northern province of Takhar on October 20-21.
A car bomb near the police headquarters in the central Ghor Province blamed on the insurgents killed 19 people and wounded more than 100, mostly civilians, on October 25.
In the southern province of Helmand, Afghan forces are still battling a major Taliban offensive to seize the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, which has forced thousands of families to flee their homes.
Even by the bloody standards of the Afghan war, the Taliban's attacks in recent weeks have provoked widespread condemnation.
In what appeared to be a response to the criticism, the Taliban said it had the right to kill anyone affiliated with the internationally backed Afghan government or its foreign partners.
"All troops and workers serving the Kabul administration have waged war against Muslims for the past 20 years. They are a bunch of criminals and mercenaries," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an interview published on October 24 on a Taliban website. "As long as they do not repent and accept an Islamic system, they shall continue to be killed," and those who kill them will be "rewarded immensely by God."
Mujahid said the Taliban's mission was "to force out foreign fighters" and "reestablish an Islamic government." He said that because the United States had agreed to pull out all its forces under the U.S.-Taliban deal, the goal of waging "jihad" against the Kabul government was "mandatory."
A recent United Nations report on civilian casualties said that despite the start of intra-Afghan talks on September 12, "high levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian."
Observers say the relentless frequency and intensity of the Taliban's operations and the mounting death toll from its attacks make the peace talks unsustainable.
"If the Taliban cannot be convinced or leveraged into a substantial shift in its behavior, the peace talks could stall to the point of collapse," says Watkins.
'Playing Politics On The Battlefield'
The Taliban has also been hit by an increasing number of U.S. air strikes as it has intensified its operations across Afghanistan.
The deadly aerial attacks have also provoked a war of words between the U.S. military and the Taliban, which alleges they are a violation of the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February.
Under that agreement, all foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in return for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which has pledged to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.
As part of the deal, the Taliban is believed to have pledged to reduce violence by scaling back attacks on major cities and highways.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, says it reserves the right under the deal to defend Afghan security forces who come under Taliban attack.
In early October, the Taliban appeared to break its pledge when hundreds of its fighters launched a coordinated attack in different parts of Helmand Province, a strategic, opium-producing region. Within a week, fierce gunbattles raged between the Taliban and Afghan forces on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah.
U.S. forces conducted air strikes on October 11-12 to repel the offensive and support Afghan forces who were being overrun.
The U.S. military said the Taliban's assault was "not consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement." The Taliban snapped back by alleging that "American forces have violated the Doha agreement in various forms by carrying out excessive air strikes" in Helmand.
U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said on October 15 that the Taliban had agreed to "reset" its commitments and reduce the number of casualties it would cause in attacks in exchange for a reduction in U.S. air strikes.
Khalilzad said the Taliban's "unfounded charges of violations and inflammatory rhetoric do not advance peace," hinting at growing tensions between the sides.
The United States has publicly acknowledged conducting three rounds of air strikes against the Taliban since February, the latest coming on October 25 when an air strike in Wardak Province killed five Taliban fighters.
But observers believe the United States has likely carried out dozens of air strikes since its deal with the Taliban.
"The Taliban and the U.S. are both playing politics on the battlefield," says Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based political analyst. "Both sides know that neither of them is sticking to the reduction of violence commitment. What we are seeing now is the new normal."
So while fighting has sharply increased in parts of Afghanistan, government negotiators and Taliban officials continue to fail to achieve any progress in negotiations in Qatar where trust in the other side is wearing thin.
Khalilzad said on October 27 that the "window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever" and called on both sides to "move past procedure and into substantive negotiations."
Progress has been slow, with the sides still stuck on finalizing the rules and regulations that will govern their negotiations.
Members of the Afghan negotiating team have accused the Taliban of stalling the talks by refusing to compromise.
The intra-Afghan negotiations were expected to be complex and protracted, considering the gulf between the sides on key issues, including civil rights and freedoms, the future distribution of power, and changes to the Afghan Constitution.
Frail and deeply divided, the Afghan government has come to the peace negotiations in relative weakness.
With roughly half of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban, Kabul lacks the military advantage to drive a hard bargain, especially with U.S. forces in the process of withdrawing, observers say.
The Taliban has admitted it cannot revive its Islamic Emirate, the official name of the brutal regime that ruled from 1996-2001. But observers say the extremist group wants to dominate in any future political system.
"The Taliban believe they have won the war and it is just a matter of time before they can take over the country again," says Amiri.
U.S. President Donald Trump said in early October that he would like all U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan by December 25, although his national-security adviser, Robert O'Brien, later said the number of U.S. troops would shrink from around 4,500 in November to 2,500 early next year.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the military alliance will not leave Afghanistan until security conditions allow, highlighting divisions in the alliance over Trump's rushed exit from the war-torn country.
"The Taliban see no reason to take the negotiations seriously because time is on their side," says Amiri.
But he warned that the Taliban, who ruled much of Afghanistan after a devastating civil war in the 1990s, cannot afford to simply play a waiting game.
"The Taliban should at least pursue a dual track of fighting and talking," Amiri says. "The past has shown that fighting alone does not bring results."