Tens Of Thousands Flee Latest Taliban Offensive, And Afghan Civilian Casualties Rise The victims of recent fighting in Helmand include a pregnant woman struck by a stray bullet. Peace talks continue, but the Taliban argue that an Afghan cease-fire should come as the talks conclude.

Tens Of Thousands Flee Latest Taliban Offensive, And Afghan Civilian Casualties Rise

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Peace negotiations are underway to end the war in Afghanistan, but peace seems even further out of reach. In Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, government forces and the Taliban are engaged in the worst fighting in months. The U.N. says thousands of families have had to flee their homes because of the violence. NPR's Diaa Hadid covers Afghanistan, and she is with us on the line from Islamabad. Diaa, good morning. Let's just start - what is happening in Helmand?

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Sure. So the latest is that officials say that two Afghan army helicopters crashed into each other while they were trying to airlift out wounded Afghan security forces. And they had been trying to repel Taliban fighters who seized a highway and overran some villages in Helmand. Effectively, what the insurgents are doing is trying to surround and seize the provincial capital. It's called Lashkar Gah. And so the fighting kicked off on Sunday, and since then, officials say, as you noted, about 5,000 families have fled. There's also been civilian casualties. Doctors Without Borders reported that a pregnant woman was struck by a stray bullet, and that caused the death of her fetus. She is still alive, though.

MARTIN: I mean, that's an awful story. And there have been so many of those awful stories to come out of Afghanistan in so many years of fighting. But there is always this constant drone of violence in Afghanistan. What is different about now?

HADID: Right. So this risks upending the peace process or at least chipping away at it, especially if this violence keeps escalating. And to explain a bit, this is the first time the Taliban have made a serious attempt to overrun a provincial capital since those talks began in September. And this is seen as a violation of an agreement they made with the chief backers of these peace talks, which is the United States. And their agreement actually calls for most foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by next year. But this attack also adds to already intensifying violence around Afghanistan, where the Taliban are targeting Afghan security forces.

And so about this, I spoke to Ali Yawar. He's an analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. And have a listen to what he had to say.

ALI YAWAR: Such an attack will impact the peace process because there is already growing anger at the intensification of violence in many provinces.

HADID: And so he actually continued to say that the attack in Lashkar Gah could really harden people against the peace process, and that's a concern of Afghan negotiators as well. I spoke to a senior negotiator yesterday, and he says he's worried that they're going to lose key public support, which they need to make the painful compromises to end this war.

MARTIN: Well, then what's - I know it's impossible to know this, really, but what is the rationale of the Taliban right now? I mean, they overrun a provincial city. Are they intentionally trying to blow up the peace negotiations?

HADID: So the Taliban aren't commenting, interestingly enough, on this attack. But I spoke to Yawar about it, and he says that the attack in Lashkar Gah could actually be a way of showing muscle. It's showing Afghan negotiators that they can strike at any time, and that's important because the Taliban are being clear that their only real leverage here is violence, and they've been clear that they don't want to abide by a cease-fire. They say that should be a product of negotiations and not something that comes at the beginning.

And, importantly, this also seems to be a test of American resolve. President Trump said troops should be home by Christmas - that was in a tweet last week - and that sparked confusion and consternation in Afghanistan over the extent of America's commitment to the Afghan government.

MARTIN: NPR's Diaa Hadid reporting from Islamabad on the violence in Afghanistan and the peace talks. Thank you so much, Diaa.

HADID: You're welcome.

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