An elusive peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban to end decades of war appears less likely each day as deadly violence by the militant group spirals across the country.
The Taliban has launched major offensives in northern and southern Afghanistan since the start of the international troop withdrawal on May 1, seizing districts and overrunning military bases.
There has also been an uptick in deadly suicide bombings striking urban areas -- which were largely shielded by major attacks under the terms of the U.S.-Taliban deal -- that are being blamed on the Islamist group.
In statements in recent weeks, the Taliban has boasted of an impending victory, provoking fear among Afghans that it will abandon the deal with the United States and attempt a forcible takeover of the war-torn country once all foreign forces are gone by September.
Observers say U.S. President Joe Biden's decision last month to pull out the remaining 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan without setting any conditions has removed any incentive for the Taliban to pursue genuine peace.
Even as it has ratcheted up its attacks, the Taliban has not officially announced its annual spring offensive, something it usually does. The militant group has also said it will observe a three-day cease-fire from May 13 to May 15 during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr, a move reciprocated by the Afghan government.
Some observers say the Taliban is creating the illusion that it remains committed to the peace process to gain further concessions from the United States.
"The Taliban realizes that if it officially announces a spring offensive it would formalize the intensification of its violence and it could therefore be blamed for spoiling the so-called peace process," says Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.
"The Taliban is trying to secure the release of 7,000 of its prisoners in Afghanistan and the removal of Taliban leaders from U.S. and UN sanctions blacklists," adds Adili. "Therefore, it continues to assert that it has remained committed to the U.S.-Taliban deal."
Under this deal signed in 2020, all foreign troops were to depart Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban, which pledged to negotiate a political settlement and permanent cease-fire with the Afghan government.
Road Towards War
Intra-Afghan peace talks that began in September have made little progress, hampered by deep mistrust, militant violence, and a huge gulf between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives on key issues.
In April, the Taliban backed out of a high-level international peace conference on Afghanistan in Turkey. Washington had hoped to use the summit, scheduled for April 24-May 4, to hammer out the framework of a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Taliban has not ruled out participating in a future summit in Turkey.
There has been a stark increase in Taliban attacks in recent weeks aimed at overrunning Afghan security forces, seizing vulnerable towns and cities from the government, and sowing fear among the populace.
"Intransigence at the negotiating table or a wholesale refusal to engage with the Afghan government and a sharp uptick in attacks on the grounds tells us that Taliban is still pursuing a maximalist strategy," says Muska Dastageer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan.
"The Taliban is not yet at the point where compromise of any kind is conceivable to them -- it is either their vision or war."
Multiple blasts outside a school in Kabul on May 8 killed at least 68 people -- most of them female students -- and wounded more than 165 others. It was the deadliest attack in the capital in more than a year.
Afghan officials blamed the attack on the Taliban, which denied responsibility.
On April 30, a huge truck bomb exploded outside a guesthouse in Pul-e Alam, the capital of the eastern province of Logar, killing at least 27 people, many of them students.
Observers said the attacks signaled that the Taliban was ditching its deal with the United States. That agreement banned the extremist group from conducting suicide bombings in urban areas. There had been a sharp drop in such attacks until the bombing in Logar.
Instead, the Taliban has exploited gray areas in the deal by carrying out a yearlong campaign of targeted killings of journalists, activists, and government workers.
The Taliban has also ramped up its attacks on military targets in recent weeks.
The Taliban captured a strategic district some 40 kilometers from Kabul on May 12. Several important highways to the country's central and southern provinces go through Nerkh district, located in the Maidan Wardak Province, west of Kabul.
The militant group also captured the district of Baraka in the northern province of Baghlan on May 5. Local officials and the Taliban said two government bases in the province also fell to the extremists.
A day later, the Taliban captured Afghanistan's second-biggest dam located in the southern province of Kandahar.
At the same time, Afghan security forces fought back a major Taliban offensive in the southern province of Helmand that displaced thousands of civilians.
The flurry of Taliban attacks has dampened any optimism over the Taliban's announcement of the Eid cease-fire.
Afghan officials and the international community have called for the Taliban to extend the cease-fire. But the militants have rejected calls for a permanent cessation of hostilities.
Observers say a prolonged cease-fire would likely split the Taliban and kill their momentum on the battlefield.
The Taliban's motives are both political and military, experts add.
"The Taliban usually reduces violence during Eid holidays to allow its fighters some respite from fighting," says Adili. "The decision is also a response to growing regional and international pressure on the Taliban to de-intensify violence."
Observers say it is unclear yet if the Taliban has decided to push for a forcible takeover of the country and abandon peace efforts.
Whether the Taliban pursues peace or war, the extremist group is unlikely to significantly reduce violence -- its key source of leverage -- until it secures its key political aim: a return to formal power in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban will try to test actors on all levels -- domestic, regional, and international -- by continuing their aggressive attacks," says Adili. "The Taliban could be seeking to further strengthen its hand in the still-hoped-for grand peace conference in Turkey."