UNITED NATIONS (AP) - All peace efforts in Afghanistan including a new initiative by Germany and Qatar for talks among Afghans must be aimed at starting formal negotiations between the government and the Taliban, the U.N. envoy for the war-torn country said Wednesday.
Tadamichi Yamamoto told the Security Council he's encouraged by increasing support for a political settlement and called on countries "with direct contacts and with influence over the Taliban to intensify their efforts toward this goal."
Germany's deputy U.N. ambassador Jurgen Schulz said there is "great support" from the Afghan government, other key political actors and civil society for an "Intra-Afghan Dialogue Conference" in the Qatar capital Doha.
But he said there are still "obstacles," stressing the need for a united international community to send the Taliban and other Afghan parties a clear message "that it is time to talk about a common future."
The first talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government were scheduled to start in late April in Qatar but were indefinitely postponed after a falling out over the delegations that should attend.
Before the postponement, U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has met on several occasions with the Taliban and has pressed for Afghan-to-Afghan talks, had hoped the Qatar meeting would bring the sides closer to a "roadmap" for a future Afghanistan.
With political efforts currently stalemated, Afghan government forces on the ground face not only a resurgent Taliban but also militants from the Islamic State group.
A report by U.N. experts circulated Wednesday said the number of Taliban fighters, facilitators and non-combatants are estimated at approximately 100,000.
The experts monitoring sanctions against the Taliban said during the past 12 months, "control of 40 percent to 50 percent of Afghan territory was contested between the Taliban and government forces."
The panel of expert said between 25 and 30 districts are now reported to be under full Taliban control, roughly double the number it reported last year.
"The Taliban have continued to undermine the morale of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces by carrying out nocturnal attacks against isolated checkpoints, aided by new supplies of night vision scopes and sniper rifles arriving into Taliban arsenals," the panel said.
"This simple yet effective tactic has aided the Taliban's battle for control of rural areas and is likely a key reason for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces ceding further ground to Taliban forces this year in an effort to consolidate government-held areas without taking excessive casualties in remote military outposts," it said.
The experts said the Taliban remain the primary partner for all "foreign terrorist groups" operating in Afghanistan including al-Qaida, except for the Islamic State extremist group. It said IS suffered military setbacks in the past year "but Afghanistan remains its largest and most threatening manifestation" outside Syria and Iraq.
The Islamic State group "is still assessed as commanding between 2,500 and 4,000 fighters" and it has carried out a series of attacks, the experts said.
The experts noted that the Taliban took advantage of parliamentary elections last October "to harass overstretched government forces and disrupt the process itself."
The panel said Afghan security officials are concerned about preparations for presidential elections scheduled for September 28th.
"Many observed that it would be difficult to fight the Taliban and protect the elections at the same time, as had proved to be the case with parliamentary elections in October 2018," the experts said.
U.N. envoy Yamamoto said the U.N. is working with the new Independent Electoral Commission and Election Complaints Commission, both headed by women for the first time, in all aspects of election preparations.
"The political stakes are high and competition is intense," he said. "It is the responsibility of all political actors, including presidential candidates, and of security and government agencies, to ensure that the elections are contested on a level playing field" - with all candidates having equal access to state resources.