Gunmen attack education department in eastern Afghan city

Militants attacked an office of the education department in Jalalabad Wednesday killing at least two people in the second deadly attack in as many days in the eastern Afghan city.

Two explosions were heard near the scene in what appeared to be a coordinate attack with gunmen taking a number of people hostage inside the building, according to a local Afghan TV station.

Five people were also wounded, according to the office of the governor of Nangarhar, the province of which Jalalabad is the capital. But the final casualty toll could be much higher.

It was the third major attack in less than two weeks in Nangarhar, following a blast that killed a group of Sikhs on July 1 and a second that killed at least 12 people on Tuesday.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Wednesday’s attack but both previous assaults were claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group’s Afghanistan-Pakistan wing.

Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan, has been the main stronghold for the IS group since the movement first appeared in Afghanistan almost four years ago.

War again after a temporary truce

The attacks have underscored the instability in many parts of Afghanistan following a brief three-day truce with the Taliban over the Eid al-Fitr holiday last month.

Backed by intensive US air strikes, Afghan forces have claimed success in holding the Taliban back from major cities and US commanders say they have been hitting other militant groups hard.

But attacks on civilian targets have continued, causing heavy casualties.

Hopes for a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban following the extraordinary Eid al-Fitr truce have dimmed with the militant group shrugging off offers from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration.

The Taliban have been gaining more ground in their annual spring offensive, ignoring Ghani’s calls for talks. Hoping to end the nearly 17-year war, the Afghan president has offered unprecedented incentives, including passports for insurgents and their families.

Ghani had also offered to work towards removing international sanctions against the group’s leaders and allowing the Taliban to open official headquarters in the capital, Kabul.

But for that to happen, he stressed, a ceasefire must first be agreed on and the Taliban have to become a political group rather than an armed insurgency.

The Taliban however have maintained they would participate if their key demand of a withdrawal of US troops was fulfilled.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently reiterated the insurgents’ standing line that “the Americans are the ones continuing the war, supporting our enemies and bombing our country”.

“So, if there are talks, they should be with them (Americans),” Mujahid told The Associated Press over the phone. “Otherwise they won’t have any results.”

Reports of Trump considering strategy review

The Taliban response came amid reports that US President Donald Trump was preparing to undertake a review of Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan.

Trump was opposed to remaining in America’s longest war, but was convinced by his advisers to give it more time. Last year, he authorised the deployment of an additional 3,000 US troops, bringing the total to around 15,000.

Nearly a year later, the current situation is in a stalemate with Afghan civilians paying a heavy toll while the Taliban has continued to expand its presence in rural areas.

Amid reports that Trump has grown frustrated over the stalemate in Afghanistan, US officials told Reuters that while the White House had not yet formally ordered the review, they were preparing for a government-wide appraisal in the next few months.

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