More than 30,000 people have been displaced in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year due to continued conflict, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report published late Monday.
A total of 30,672 people were displaced between Jan. 1 and March 11, according to the report. The highest number of displacements were in Kunduz and Takhar provinces. More than 445,000 people were displaced due to conflict in the country in 2017. Afghan security forces have been stretched thin as fighting escalated after winter ended, the report said.
The military is battling a Taliban insurgency while also fighting Daesh terrorist group's gradual expansion in the country's north and its regular attacks in the capital Kabul.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived Tuesday in Kabul in an unannounced visit, Tom Gresback, the spokesman of U.S. and NATO's Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, told DPA. It marks Mattis' third visit to the country, where around 11,000 U.S. troops are stationed. Mattis previously visited Afghanistan in April and September last year.
"It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one full swoop, that would be a bridge too far, but there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government," he told reporters aboard a military jet, as reported by AFP.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani recently offered a comprehensive peace deal to the Taliban. Ghani's peace plan includes eventually recognizing the Taliban as a political party. The insurgent group has said it is prepared to negotiate, but only with the U.S. and not with the Kabul government. Previous peace offers to the militants were refused. The Taliban last week described the Afghan government as "illegitimate" and its peace process efforts as "deceptive," in a statement calling for a boycott of an Islamic scholars' conference in Jakarta. "Right now we want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance of the reconciliation effort," Mattis said.
As part of the so-called South Asia Strategy, the U.S. President Donald Trump in August announced an increase in the number of U.S. troops in the country to push back the resurgent Taliban. More than 3,000 additional U.S. forces have also arrived in Afghanistan to boost the training and advising of local troops. Approximately 14,000 American forces are now in Afghanistan, up from a low of about 8,500 when the former U.S. President Barack Obama left office. Slightly more than 14 percent of Afghanistan's approximately 400 districts are fully controlled by the Taliban, while 30 percent are contested, according to the country's military.
The Taliban, Afghanistan's biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks in January alone, the Washington-based terrorism research group TRAC said – an astonishing number given that the traditional fighting season does not usually start until freezing temperatures have subsided in the spring.
Mattis said the jump in attacks on civilians was an indication that a pressured Taliban is unable to conduct broader, ground-taking operations. The Afghan security forces were able to stop some attacks, Mattis said, though he noted he wanted to see them shift to a more "offensive mindset" in the coming months.