People said that it is not possible to fire on U.S. forces,” said Muslim Mohabat, a former Taliban fighter from Watapor District in Kunar Province. “They would say the barrel of the rifle would bend if you open fire on them, but we attacked them, and nothing happened.”

“Then we kept attacking them and forced them to leave the valley,” said Mr. Mohabat, who fought in some of the most violent battles of the war with the United States.

In the insurgents’ view, their advances will inexorably lead to the end of the Kabul government.

“On the battlefield there is a sense that, ‘We’re stronger than ever,’’’ said Ashley Jackson, a Taliban expert at the Overseas Development Institute. “Power-sharing and democracy, these are anathema to their political culture.”

Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Makes Secret Visit to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III landed in Afghanistan’s capital Sunday morning, becoming the first member of President Biden’s cabinet to set foot in the country that is home to America’s longest war.

The United States is tentatively set to withdraw American forces from the country on May 1, the date set in an agreement signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban more than a year ago.

Speaking to reporters before his departure from Afghanistan, Mr. Austin declined to comment on whether the Taliban had met their obligations under that agreement, which would trigger the departure of U.S. forces from a country where they have had a continuous presence since 2001.

“It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” Mr. Austin said. “We’d really like to see that violence come down, and I think if it does come down it can begin to set the conditions for some really fruitful diplomatic work.”

that meeting the deadline would be “tough.” On Saturday, speaking with reporters in India, Mr. Austin expressed confidence that he could remove all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, should the president direct him to do so.

The defense secretary’s visit to Afghanistan came at the end of more than a week of travel across the Pacific during which he reassured allies that they would have the United States’ support in countering potential threats from China.

First, at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, the secretary was briefed by Adm. Philip S. Davidson on various threats in the region and how American military assets have been deployed in response. Flying next to Japan and South Korea, Mr. Austin joined Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken for talks with the foreign and defense ministers of both nations.

Both secretaries emphasized the Biden administration’s stance that diplomacy would again be the United States’ first course of action in foreign affairs.

In New Delhi, where Mr. Austin met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the defense minister, Rajnath Singh, senior U.S. defense officials said that Indian leaders spoke mostly about their concerns regarding China. It was only toward the end of their talks that the issue of Pakistan — India’s neighbor and traditional main enemy — came up.

The trip, Mr. Austin’s first as a cabinet member, comes as President Biden seeks to build a series of security agreements with various nations who could band together to respond to Chinese military operations in the South and East China Seas.

One such agreement between the United States, Australia, Japan and India — called “the quad” — was repeatedly cited by both Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken as a model for combined military operations in region. Mr. Austin did not ask South Korea to join the quad during his time in Seoul, according to a senior defense official.

Mr. Austin’s trip to Kabul was kept secret, and was to remain confidential until two hours after he left, but local reporters broke news of his visit after he met with President Ashraf Ghani.

The secretary’s arrival in Kabul came on Nowruz, the Persian new year — a date on which the Islamic State in Afghanistan had pledged to carry out attacks. That led the Pentagon to keep the secretary’s visit under wraps as long as possible.

After landing in Kabul, Mr. Austin boarded a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter for a brief flight to the headquarters of the American military mission. Just off the former soccer stadium that serves as the command’s heliport, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the American commander in Afghanistan, quickly walked Mr. Austin through a warren of small buildings and tall concrete blast walls to his office.

Mr. Austin told reporters that he had no particular message that he conveyed to President Ghani, preferring instead to listen to the Afghan president’s thoughts on the situation in his country.

“We’ve done a lot to work with the Afghan security forces,” Mr. Austin said in response to a question regarding concerns Afghans might have following a U.S. withdrawal. “And I don’t want to speculate about what could happen or what could not happen going forward.”

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At Least 9 Dead in Afghan Helicopter Crash, After Clashes With Local Militia

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nine security personnel were killed after an Afghan military helicopter was downed, likely by militia forces, in eastern Afghanistan early Thursday, signaling a drastic rift between the Afghan government and the regional forces supposedly under its control.

The fighting occurred in Wardak, a mountainous province that borders Kabul in the country’s east. There, militia forces led by Abdul Ghani Alipur, a local warlord with a spotty rights record, have been engaged in a tense, sometimes violent, standoff with government troops since January.

The latest clashes have pushed the uneasy relationship to its breaking point as the country moves toward an uncertain future.

“There was fighting, helicopters were targeting us, and when the helicopter was firing rockets, we had to shoot at it,” Mohammad Hussain Tawana, an aide for Mr. Alipur, said of the attack that occurred in Hisa-e-Awal Behsud district. He added that it wasn’t clear whether the crash was caused by the shooting or by technical problems.

Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and more than 30 were wounded.

The Afghan government suspended Allah Dad Fedayi, the provincial police chief of Wardak, for overseeing the forces that attacked the demonstrators. But Mr. Tawana, the aide, still cited him as a reason for the fighting that reignited late Wednesday night, as the police chief was simply reassigned to another province earlier this week.

“The people understand that there would be no action taken by the government because of the incident, so they finally decided to take action themselves,” Mr. Tawana said.

interview with ABC News that aired Wednesday, President Biden said it would be “tough” to meet the deadline, publicly hinting at a prolonged troop presence in the country that could scuttle last year’s U.S.-Taliban deal as the insurgent group has strictly opposed any such extension.

Mr. Biden added that he was consulting with allies on the drawdown, and said that if the deadline were to be extended, it would not be by “a lot longer.”

Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed contributed reporting.

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U.S. Has 1,000 More Troops in Afghanistan Than It Disclosed

So, officially, the Pentagon insists that troop numbers are lower. “We are still at 2,500” in Afghanistan, Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email to The New York Times on Friday.

What U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan are stationed at roughly a dozen bases and consist mostly of Special Operations troops advising Afghan units at the headquarters level, as well as flight and support crews for aircraft. In southern Afghanistan, U.S. jets fly overhead almost nightly.

Since this time last year, U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan have declined from 12,000 to the current number. That drop was staunchly opposed by Pentagon leaders, who have long said that at least 8,600 U.S. troops are needed, both to support the Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism missions.

But a review of the U.S.-Taliban deal by the Afghan Study Group, a congressionally mandated report that submitted its findings to lawmakers last month, concluded that maintaining around 4,500 troops in Afghanistan could be enough “to secure U.S. interests under current conditions and at an acceptable level of risk.”

In addition to the 3,500 Americans, there are roughly 7,000 NATO and allied troops still in Afghanistan who depend on U.S. forces for logistics and force protection. If the United States did, indeed, try to leave by May 1, it would be almost impossible logistically to withdraw both the American and the allied forces in time, experts have said, though U.S. officials insist it remains an option.

Despite the shrinking timeline, Mr. Biden has yet to decide whether U.S. troops will stay beyond the proposed date — and if so, how many — or leave, ending America’s longest war after more than 19 years.

Mr. Biden’s own inclination, when he was Mr. Obama’s vice president, was toward a reduced U.S. presence. But as president, he must weigh whether following such instincts would run too high a risk of the Taliban defeating government forces and taking over Afghanistan’s key cities. Many senior military commanders still argue that a full withdrawal could also lead to Al Qaeda and other groups hostile to the United States regaining a prominent presence in the country.

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U.S. Pushes U.N.-Led Peace Conference in Letter to Afghan Leader

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has proposed a United Nations-led peace conference in Turkey aimed at forming an inclusive Afghan government with the Taliban and establishing a three-month reduction in violence leading to a cease-fire.

In a letter to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan requesting his “urgent leadership,” Mr. Blinken signaled that the Biden administration had lost faith in faltering negotiations between Mr. Ghani’s government and the Taliban. The unusually blunt letter, in which Mr. Blinken asked Mr. Ghani to “understand the urgency of my tone,” reflected American frustration with the Afghan president’s often intransigent stance in stalled peace talks.

The existence of the letter was confirmed by a U.S. official in Washington and the Afghan government.

Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September as part of a February 2020 agreement between the militants and the United States. But the talks have faltered over issues like a prisoner exchange and reductions in violence.

Mr. Blinken wrote that the United States had not decided whether to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan by May 1, as outlined in its agreement with the Taliban. He expressed concern that “the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains” following a U.S. withdrawal.

The State Department declined to comment on the letter but said in a statement that “all options remain on the table” regarding the withdrawal of American troops.

“We have not made any decisions about our force posture in Afghanistan after May 1,” the statement said.

A pullout would create enormous security challenges for Mr. Ghani’s government and its overburdened security forces.

The United Nations-led conference in Turkey would include envoys from the United States, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and India “to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken wrote.

The existence of the letter was reported after Zalmay Khalilzad, the American peace envoy, delivered an outline of U.S. policy options to Mr. Ghani’s government and Taliban negotiators last week. The proposals, intended to reinvigorate the stalled peace negotiations, included a road map for a future Afghan government with Taliban representation, a revised Afghan constitution using the current one as an “initial template” and terms for a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.

The New York Times obtained a copy of the proposals, dated Feb. 28, which Afghan officials confirmed were delivered by Mr. Khalilzad last week.

Significantly, the proposals called for national elections after the establishment of a “transitional peace government of Afghanistan.” The Taliban have opposed elections, dismissing them as Western interference.

The proposals also include guaranteed rights for women and for religious and ethnic minorities, and protections for a free press. The Taliban violently suppressed women and minorities and did not permit independent news media when the group led Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Taliban negotiators have said they support women’s rights within the strictures of Islamic law — the same strictures the militants cited to ban women from schools and workplaces.

The outline presented by Mr. Khalilzad proposed a High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence to advise an independent judiciary to resolve conflicts over the interpretation of Islamic law. The proposals recognized Islam as the country’s official religion and acknowledged the importance of “Islamic values” in a future Afghan state.

The outline proposed that the government and the Taliban each name seven members to the High Council, with a 15th member appointed by the Afghan president. Similar arrangements were proposed for a commission to prepare a revised constitution and for a Joint Cease-fire Monitoring and Implementation Commission.

The proposals also called for the Taliban to remove “their military structures and officers from neighboring countries.” Pakistan has provided a sanctuary for Taliban commanders and fighters crossing back and forth into Afghanistan and has permitted the militants to maintain a political council in the country.

Both Pakistan and the Taliban are unlikely to agree to such a proposal.

An introduction to the document said it “sets forth principles for governance, security, and rule of law and presents options for power sharing that could help the two sides reach a political settlement that ends the war.”

The Biden administration has said the Taliban have not lived up to their commitments to reduce violence and to cut ties with extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. But Washington has also grown impatient with Mr. Ghani, who has refused to consider an interim government that would almost certainly end his second five-year term as president.

Violence has escalated in Afghanistan over the past year, with persistent Taliban territorial gains and attacks on beleaguered government forces. Mr. Ghani’s government has blamed the Taliban for a series of targeted assassinations of government officials and supporters, security force members and their families, civil society advocates and journalists.

The Taliban have used the violence as leverage in the peace talks in Doha, Qatar, dragging out negotiations while awaiting a decision by President Biden on the May 1 troop withdrawal.

Mr. Blinken’s letter expressed impatience with the pace of negotiations, saying the United States intended “to move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

Asfandyar Mir, an analyst at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said the Biden policy outlined in Mr. Blinken’s letter was “focused, aggressive, ambitious in scope, but also comes with enormous risks.”

He added: “It has far too many moving parts, and time is not on the side of the administration, so it can fail. There might be pushback from some U.S. allies,” particularly since “the Taliban has shown limited interest in meaningful engagement.”

Mr. Mir said the letter indicated that the Biden administration sees Mr. Ghani as an impediment to peace. “It is in no mood to indulge his parochialism,” he said.

Mr. Blinken’s letter, first reported by the independent channel TOLO News in Kabul, said the proposed three-month reduction in violence was intended to forestall a widely anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban while giving negotiations a chance at a fresh start.

“I urge you to strongly consider the proposal,” the secretary told Mr. Ghani.

Mr. Blinken has previously indicated that American troops would not remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Many analysts say Afghan security forces, already hollowed out by high casualty and desertion rates, would be hard pressed to hold off the Taliban without the presence of American troops — even if Washington and coalition allies continued to provide financial aid and military hardware.

“I must also make clear to you, Mr. President, that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United States has not ruled out any option,” Mr. Blinken wrote.

Adam Weinstein, research fellow for the Middle East at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said the Biden administration considered Mr. Ghani both a necessary partner and a roadblock to a peace agreement.

“This letter sends a strong message to Ghani to play ball or get out of the way,” he said.

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