KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S. peace envoy was back in the Middle East on Tuesday to warn the Taliban not to pursue a military victory on the ground and deliver a blunt message: A Taliban government that comes to power through force in Afghanistan will not be recognized.
The U.S. State Department said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, was in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, to "help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan."
The development comes amid a weekslong, relentless Taliban offensive as American and NATO forces finalize their pullout from war-torn Afghanistan.
The insurgents have captured five out of 34 provincial capitals in the country in less than a week. They are now battling the Western-backed government for control of three others, including the city of Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, and the city of Kandahar, the capital in neighboring Kandahar province.
The militants' sweep comes despite condemnations by the international community and the Taliban's refusal to return to the negotiating table.
Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, would "press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan," the State Department said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban military chief released an audio message to his fighters on Tuesday, ordering them not to harm Afghan forces and government officials in territories they conquer. The recording was shared on Twitter by the Taliban spokesman in Doha, Mohammad Naim.
In the nearly five-minute audio, Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, also tells the insurgents to stay out of abandoned homes of government and security officials who have fled, leave marketplaces open and protect places of business, including banks.
It was not immediately clear if Taliban fighters on the ground would heed Yaqoob's instructions. There have been reports by civilians who have fled Taliban advances of heavy-handed treatment by the insurgents — schools being burned down and repressive restrictions on women.
There have also been reports of revenge killings in areas where the Taliban have gained control. The insurgents have also claimed responsibility for killing a comedian in southern Kandahar, assassinating the government's media chief Kabul and a bombing that targeted acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, killing eight and wounding more. The minister was not harmed in the attack.
The intensifying war has also increased the number of civilian casualties.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that its staff has treated more than 4,000 Afghans this month in their 15 facilities across the country, including in Helmand and Kandahar, where Afghan and U.S. airstrikes are trying to rein in the Taliban onslaught.
"We are seeing homes destroyed, medical staff and patients put at tremendous risk, and hospitals, electricity and water infrastructure damaged," Eloi Fillion, ICRC's head of delegation in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
"The use of explosive weaponry in cities is having an indiscriminate impact on the population," Fillion added. "Many families have no option but to flee in search of a safer place. This must stop."
The lightning speed at which the Taliban have accumulated battlefield gains has lent urgency to the need to restart talks. The surge began in April, when the U.S. and NATO announced they would end their military presence and bring the last of their troops home. The final date of the withdrawal is Aug. 31 but the U.S. Central Command has said the pullout is already 95% complete.
On Monday, the U.S. emphasized that the Biden administration now sees the fight as one for Afghan political and military leaders to win or lose.
"When we look back, it's going to come down to leadership and what leadership was demonstrated, or not" by Afghans, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a Pentagon news conference. "It's their country to defend now. It's their struggle."
Khalilzad, the architect of the peace deal the Trump administration brokered with the Taliban, was expected to hold talks with key players, as well as "multilateral organizations" to see how to restart talks and halt the Taliban onslaught.
The U.S. envoy will also likely seek a commitment from Afghanistan's neighbors and the region not to recognize a Taliban government that comes to power by force. When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, three countries recognized their rule: Pakistan, Saudi Arabi and the United Arab Emirates.
Senior Afghan officials may travel to Doha in the coming days, including Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the government's reconciliation council. Pakistan's national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, on Monday called for "reinvigorated" efforts to get all sides in the conflict back to talks, describing a protracted war in Afghanistan as a "nightmare scenario" for Pakistan.
Yusuf, speaking to foreign journalists in Islamabad, refused to definitively say whether Pakistan, which holds considerable sway over the Taliban, would recognize a Taliban government installed by force, saying instead that Pakistan wants to see an "inclusive" government in Kabul.