Taliban insurgents show no sign of reducing the level of violence in Afghanistan to facilitate peace negotiations with the government, and appear to be trying to strengthen their military position as leverage, with the ``unprecedented violence`` of 2020 carrying into 2021, U.N. experts said in a new report circulated Friday.
The panel of experts said the Taliban are reported to be responsible for the great majority of assassinations that have become a feature of the violence in Afghanistan, targeting government officials, women, human rights defenders and journalists among others. These attacks ``appear to be undertaken with the objective of weakening the capacity of the government and intimidating civil society,''it said.
In the 22-page report to the U.N. Security Council, the panel said the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces by Sept. 11, the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, ``will challenge Afghan forces by limiting aerial operations with fewer drones and radar and surveillance capabilities, less logistical support and artillery, as well as a disruption in training.''
The Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition for harboring Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.
A peace deal that Washington brokered with the Taliban and signed in February 2020 was aimed at bringing American troops home and ending more than four decades of relentless wars following the 1979 Afghan invasion by forces from the former Soviet Union.
Negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan representatives began last September in Doha, Qatar and continued earlier this year. But the Taliban announced on April 13 -- a day before President Joe Biden's announcement that all U.S. troops would leave by Sept. 11 -- that it would not take part in any conference intended to decide the future of Afghanistan until all foreign troops were gone.
The U.N. experts, who monitor sanctions against the Taliban, predicted more violence in the run-up to their departure.
``Taliban rhetoric and reports of active Taliban preparations for the spring fighting season indicate the group is likely to increase military operations for 2021, whether or not a spring offensive is announced,'' they said.
The experts also questioned how Afghan forces would fare without coalition support.
``Afghan forces have successfully reversed many Taliban gains with the assistance of international coalition close air support, but have done so with heavy casualty rates,'' they said. ``It remains to be seen how Afghan forces will perform without it.''
The panel of experts painted a grim picture of the violence in Afghanistan, which had been expected to decrease in 2020 but instead soared to the highest level ever recorded by the United Nations in the country _ more than 25,000 incidents, a 10% increase over 2019.
Violence surged as the Doha talks began, the experts said, and incident rates in the usually calmer winter were higher than those in the spring or summer of 2020.
``Unprecedented violence over the winter carried into 2021, with 7,177 security incidents recorded countrywide between Jan. 1 and March 31, representing a 61 percent increase over the same period in 2020,'' they said.
The panel said the number of Taliban fighters remains robust, with estimates ranging from about 58,000 to 100,000.
The panel said many sources its members spoke to _ which include governments _ believe the Taliban used the 2020 fighting season ``to further strengthen strangleholds around several provincial capitals, seeking to shape future military operations when levels of departing foreign troops are no longer able to respond.''
While no one claimed responsibility for most assassinations, the experts said it is widely believed that approximately 85 percent of them were carried out by the Taliban. The U.N. recorded an increase in reported assassinations from 780 in 2019 to 996 in 2020, the report said.
As part of the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Taliban was supposed to reduce violence and part ways with al-Qaida, the extremist group that the Taliban sheltered prior to the 9/11 attacks.
But the experts said ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida ``remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.''
``The Taliban has begun to tighten its control over al-Qaida by gathering information on foreign terrorist fighters and registering and restricting them,'' the panel said. ``However, it has not made any concessions in this regard that it could not easily and quickly reverse, and it is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from al-Qaida in Afghanistan.''
Al-Qaida is reported to number from several dozen to 500 people, mainly nationals from north Africa and the Middle East, it said.
The experts said al-Qaida and other militants continue to celebrate developments in Afghanistan ``as a victory for the Taliban's cause and thus for global radicalism.''
According to U.N. member states, al-Qaida is present in at least 15 provinces primarily in the east, south and southeast and a significant part of its leadership remains based in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the panel said. Its leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, ``is believed to be located somewhere in the border region,'' it said.