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As The Taliban Gain Ground In Afghanistan, The U.S. Remains Focused On Diplomacy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Taliban is gaining ground and moving on urban areas in Afghanistan. Top U.N. official warns that the conflict is entering a deadlier and more destructive phase, and the United States says that it is still focused on diplomacy. But peace talks have stalled as Taliban leaders make more demands. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The headlines out of Afghanistan were alarming this week. The Taliban captured their first provincial capital in southwestern Afghanistan. Militants killed the director of Afghanistan's government media center in Kabul and tried to assassinate the country's acting defense minister. U.N. Special Representative Deborah Lyons painted a grim picture at a Security Council meeting on Friday.

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DEBORAH LYONS: This is now a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not-so-distant past.

KELEMEN: By attacking urban areas, she says, the Taliban are putting many civilians at risk. And that's not what the international community expects from a group that has representatives at peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

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LYONS: There is a striking contrast between the activity on the battlefield and the quiet stalemate at the negotiation table in Doha, where we should be seeing the opposite.

KELEMEN: Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.N., Ghulam Isaczai, echoed that, accusing the Taliban of carrying out, quote, "very egregious human rights abuses."

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GHULAM ISACZAI: So all of this are sending a very strong message to the international community and to us that Talibans are not interested in peace. You cannot terrorize the population on the one hand, unleash a massive attack on cities, and then go to Doha and talk about peace on the other hand.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it's not ready to throw in the towel on those talks that started last year in Doha. U.S. officials argue that the Taliban understand they won't have international legitimacy if their forces topple the Afghan government instead of reaching a deal at the negotiating table. But the U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad offers a bleak picture, saying the Taliban are feeling emboldened.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: At this point, they are demanding that they take the lion's share of power in the next government given the military situation as they see it.

KELEMEN: A former U.S. diplomat, Annie Pforzheimer, says it's time to step up the pressure. She says the U.N. should reimpose sanctions and travel bans on the Taliban.

ANNIE PFORZHEIMER: They could be confined to Doha and made to stay there until they sit down at the table with seriousness and start with a cease-fire and other elements of a sincere effort to reach a political settlement.

KELEMEN: Pforzheimer, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the U.S. could provide air support for Afghan government forces.

PFORZHEIMER: So that whether we have U.S. troops on the ground or not, this is still a policy imperative to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state with all that that will entail for the people inside the country and the region.

KELEMEN: U.N. officials are predicting more refugees from Afghanistan. As the U.N. special representative puts it, there's a mood of dread, especially coming from women, who fear living under the Taliban again. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.