DOHA, Qatar — Violence continued unabated across Afghanistan on Saturday, as negotiators from the warring sides remained bogged down by disagreements over a framework for talks a week after historic negotiations began in Doha.
More than a dozen civilians were feared dead in one airstrike by Afghan forces in the North. The deaths came as a week of discussions still had not finalized the rules for negotiations over contentious issues, like a cease-fire and the form of a future government. The slow pace highlighted how complicated the effort to end to the Afghan war will likely be.
Officials from both sides said that while they had resolved most issues on how the negotiations should be conducted, they were stuck on which school of Islamic thought should be used for resolving disputes in a way that respects minority sects in Afghanistan.
The civilian deaths were a stark reminder of the toll of each day’s delay in the talks.
Citing United Nations figures, Roland Kobia, the European Union special envoy for Afghanistan, said the violence levels over the past five weeks had been “the highest in the last five years.”
The bloodiest attack on Saturday occurred in the Khanabad district of northern Kunduz Province. Local residents said the Afghan forces had carried out an airstrike targeting a Taliban gathering, with few initial casualties. But when local residents gathered to extinguish the resulting fire at a nearby house, the aircraft returned for another strike that killed more than a dozen civilians.
“I have lost four family members, two uncles and two cousins,” said Jawad, 25, who would not give his full name but said he lived in the Sayed Ramzan village that was targeted.
Afghan officials in Kunduz initially said they had “killed and wounded 30 Taliban” in the strikes, but later admitted privately that civilians were among the casualties. They would not discuss exact numbers.
“Initial reports indicate no harm was inflicted upon civilians,” the defense ministry insisted in a statement.
Also on Saturday, in southeastern Paktika Province, a deputy police chief was killed in an explosion while delivering support to his forces. And in the same province, a wedding convoy struck a roadside bomb, wounding 19 people, including the bride.
One significant recent shift in insurgent tactics, particularly in targeted bombings and assassinations, is not to claim responsibility for the attacks, allowing the Taliban to exert pressure while maintaining deniability for the violence.
U.S. military officials also confirmed that a dozen rockets have been fired at two U.S. bases in southern Afghanistan over the past week, including six on Kandahar Airfield on Saturday and six on Sept. 11, the day before the Doha talks began and the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“While we are still assessing the source of the attack, these actions are not consistent with the U.S.- Taliban agreement and have the potential to put the peace process in jeopardy,” Col. Sonny Legget, a spokesman for the American-led and NATO coalition in Afghanistan said in confirming Saturday’s Kandahar attack.
A Taliban spokesman would not confirm whether they were behind either the rocket attack on Sept. 11 or the one on Saturday.
At the talks in Doha, the chief negotiators from both sides have called for patience for what they say will be a complicated process. Both sides have largely agreed to about 20 items on how the negotiations should be conducted, most significantly committing to continuing with the talks even when things get complicated on the battlefield.
But the sides remain stuck on which school of Islamic thought to use for resolving disputes. While both sides largely agree on using the Hanafi school of Islamic thought, one of the four major Sunni schools that is also the foundation of the current Afghan Constitution, they are at odds on a formulation that does not alienate other sects, particularly the Shia.
The disagreement is largely political. The Taliban want to appeal to its hardline base with only a mention of the majority Sunni school. The Afghan government’s negotiating team, while agreeing on using the Hanafi school of thought, insists on a caveat that protects the unity of Afghanistan as an inclusive republic.
The talks are taking place in an environment of deep mistrust.
Afghan officials suspect the Taliban want a swift political settlement, fearing that the insurgents are seeking to run out the clock on the withdrawal of the American troops, which is expected to be completed in the spring. Taliban officials say the government, which received a new five-year mandate last spring, is dragging out the peace process to complete its term in office.
The negotiators are also up against the high expectations of a civilian population crushed by the weight of the conflict.
“A week ago, an IED went off and my wife lost her leg,” said Mohammad Shah, 27, who looked fatigued outside a hospital in Kabul.
“Civilians are the main victims of the current war. I am ready to sacrifice my entire family if peace comes to the country, but it won’t,” he said. “I have no faith in the peace process with the Taliban.”
Other, such as Hashmat Sayedkhil, an employee of the Afghan ministry of economy, were more hopeful.
“Obviously there is an opportunity, and both sides can show their commitment to the Afghan people,” he said. “We see a tiny light at the end of a dark tunnel, and we hope the Afghan people get to experience peace.”
Mujib Mashal reported from Doha, Qatar, and Fatima Faizi and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan. Reporting was contributed by Najim Rahim and Farooq Jan Mangal from Kabul.