(Bloomberg) -- Taliban militants have accelerated attacks across Afghanistan in a show of strength as the U.S. pushes forward with negotiations to end the 17-year-long war.

The upswing in violence comes against the backdrop of accelerated peace talks and reports that the U.S. plans to dramatically cut troop levels in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has stepped up efforts to bring the Taliban to the table, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Russia and Iran involved in discussions with the Taliban over the last few months, either with the U.S. or in a parallel process. Neither track has involved Afghan government representatives.

The insurgents have been battling Afghan forces in the north of the strife-torn country for territorial gain in the past week. They’re fighting now in or on the outskirts of Balkh, Takhar, Baghlan, Kunduz and Sar-e-Pul provinces, according to local government officials.

Local military officials refused to provide exact figures of the casualties. In four separate email statements sent by Taliban spokesmen Zabihullah Mujahed and Qari Yousef Ahmadi, the Taliban claimed responsibility for all attacks, adding that it took over several villages, destroyed several bases of Afghan forces, grabbed weapons and ammunition and killed or wounded more than 150 forces. The Taliban also sustained heavy casualties, local officials said.

“With the mounting attacks across the country, the Taliban want their wishes and demands eventually accepted by the Americans and Afghanistan,” said Abdul Baqi Amin, director general of the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies think tank in Kabul. Their attacks send a “message that they have undeniable strength in the battlefields,” he added.

No Accord

U.S. President Donald Trump last year ordered his government to initiate peace talks with the insurgents to end the war that’s taken the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers and cost the nation more than $900 billion.

The violence also killed more than 10,000 Afghan civilians in 2017 alone. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said late last year that more than 28,000 Afghan forces were killed since 2015, shortly after he took office.

The U.S. military command in Afghanistan described the recent spate of attacks as "the normal ebb and flow of battle" and noted in an email that Afghan forces had "held the initiative, especially in the last several weeks."

The insurgents control or contest half of Afghanistan -- more territory than anytime since they were toppled by the allied forces in 2001 following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

Khalilzad has failed to reach agreement in his three rounds of talks since August with the insurgents. Up for discussion has been the U.S. troop withdrawal, a ceasefire, Taliban prisoners, U.N. sanctions, an Afghan constitutional amendment and an agreement to continue discussions.

The group has repeatedly refused to talk to Ghani’s administration before the withdrawal of the foreign forces. Last month, Ghani sent his negotiating team to U.A.E. in hopes to sit down with to the group, but the Taliban refused to meet them and they returned to Kabul after four days in Abu Dhabi.

Khalilzad hopes to broker a deal before the country’s presidential election on July 20, which was delayed for six months due to technical, logistical and security issues. Ghani confirmed he plans to seek re-election to end the war.

The militants “will never change or give up their demands,” said the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies think tank’ Amin, who met twice with the group’s leaders in their political office in Doha. The group “feels pity in killing an Afghan soldier and like us they really want peace, but certainly not under the presence of the U.S. and NATO forces.”

--With assistance from Nick Wadhams.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul at enajafizada1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at rpollard2@bloomberg.net, Karthikeyan Sundaram

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