KABUL, Afghanistan — Over the past couple of months, as American and Taliban negotiators have resumed talks to try to complete a peace deal, an unusual calm has settled over major Afghan cities. Deadly terrorism attacks, once frequent, have suddenly dropped in urban centers.
But a series of bloody assaults in the countryside suggests that the calm in the cities could be misleading. The war continues to kill dozens daily. And the patterns of violence in recent months have been tied closely to how negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, held in the Gulf state of Qatar, have played out.
With talks now seeming to bog down, some diplomats and political leaders fear that violence could grow deadlier — even if much of it plays out in the countryside, away from the headlines.
The sticking point in the negotiations: What reduction in violence is needed to move the peace process forward? The negotiators’ ultimate goal is the gradual withdrawal of American troops, and the establishment of talks between the Taliban and other Afghans over power-sharing.
The drop in urban attacks most likely stems from an unacknowledged understanding with the Taliban to reduce high-profile violence in order to pave the way for an agreement. Improvements in security measures, with new leadership introduced over the past year, have also played a role.
But as the Taliban have held back on urban assaults, they are attacking in rural areas.
At least 40 Afghan security personnel were killed in the 24 hours before Wednesday, security officials said, with most of the losses coming in a couple of attacks in northern provinces.
The Taliban have long resisted American demands for a cease-fire, seeking to push the issue later in the peace process, when they sit down with other Afghans on sharing power. Doing so earlier, they fear, will divide their ranks.
Instead, they have answered the demands with a proposal for “violence reduction” — what could amount to the insurgents holding fire on United States forces as they close down their bases and withdraw, and avoiding dramatic attacks in major cities.
The Afghan government, so far excluded from the talks, has asked the United States to agree to nothing but an extensive cease-fire. Its fear is that if the United States signs an initial deal with violence levels reduced only in the cities, the war will simply continue to rage in the countryside.
As the United States has pushed for more from the Taliban at the negotiating table in recent weeks, the insurgents are growing mistrustful, accusing the Americans of moving the goal posts.
Taliban officials say the United States had recently asked for violence reduction, which they brought to the table after a month of consultations all the way down to battlefield commanders.
The American side found the Taliban offer inadequate. One Taliban official said that now the United States is seeking something closer to a cease-fire, which it hadn’t demanded earlier. Some Afghan officials and diplomats said negotiators want the reduction of violence to extend from the cities into the districts and along the highways.
But stagnation in the talks has raised fears that the quest for a more expansive truce could break the fragile negotiations at a sensitive time, thrusting the country back into greater violence.
Mohammed Arif Rahmani, a member of the Afghan Parliament’s national security committee, said that during past winters the Taliban would expand their attacks in the cities and reduce their activities in the rural areas because of harsh weather.
“But now it feels like the Taliban have only tactically reduced attacks in the cities and expanded attacks in the countryside,” Mr. Rahmani said. “In the past week, we have seen an increase in such attacks in the rural areas, and I think it has to do with the stalemate in the talks over the past month.”
A large number of the recent fatalities have come in the north — despite extreme cold temperatures.
In an overnight attack in Baghlan Province on Tuesday, the Taliban killed between 11 and 18 security personnel, according to different official accounts, nearly wiping out an entire outpost with the help of an infiltrator. In neighboring Kunduz Province early on Wednesday, at least 12 security personnel were killed.
In the meantime, the Afghan government and its American allies, largely relying on airstrikes, have continued killing Taliban forces at rates of dozens daily. The Afghan government reports — which are difficult to verify and prone to exaggeration — claim its soldiers have killed an as many as 30 Taliban daily over the past week.
The United States has continued airstrikes across the country at high rates. Data released by the United States Air Force showed that American military aircraft dropped 7,423 bombs in Afghanistan in 2019 — the most in any year since the United States began tracking the strikes in 2006 — and have pursued the recent trend of increasing airstrikes.
The expanded air campaign, by both United States and Afghan Air Forces, has also come with reports of increased civilian casualties. In the latest episode, on Saturday, at least seven civilians, all members of the same family, were killed in an airstrike in the Borka area of northern Balkh Province.
“The armed conflict in Afghanistan is not winding down, it is widening, and the people who continue to pay the price are Afghan civilians,” said Omar Waraich, the deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International. “There continues to be a shocking disregard for human life from all sides.”
Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Washington.