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ISLAMABAD - The United States is pressing the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency to come together to bring to justice the perpetrators of Tuesday's deadly terrorist strikes on a hospital and a funeral in Afghanistan.
U.S. peace envoy for the country, Zalmay Khalilzad, stressed Wednesday that cooperation between the two Afghan adversaries "is necessary" to deal with the "common enemy" of terrorism and work for national peace to tackle challenges facing the country.
"Failure to do so leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to terrorism, perpetual instability & economic hardship. Now is the time to press forward on peace," Khalilzad tweeted Wednesday. He said the cooperation is also "necessary" to deal with the looming threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Afghan officials confirmed Wednesday the collective death toll from the previous day's attacks has risen to at least 56, with women and newborn babies among the victims.
The Islamic State terrorist group claimed its local affiliate, Khorasan Province (ISKP), carried out the suicide bombing of the funeral for a police commander in eastern Nangarhar province.
No armed group took credit for Tuesday's bomb-and-gun assault on a maternity hospital in the Afghan capital, Kabul. The Taliban denied its involvement. The government-run 100-bed medical facility is supported by the global humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF.
In its first formal reaction to the attack, MSF said Wednesday it was devastated after the "sickening attack on pregnant women, mothers and their babies while seeking health care at our maternity ward." The international aid group went on to note that "while fighting was ongoing, one woman gave birth to her baby, and both are doing well."
War escalation fear
U.S. envoy Khalilzad negotiated and signed a landmark agreement with the Taliban in February to pave the way for U.S. forces to exit Afghanistan, laying the groundwork for peace negotiations between Afghan parties to the conflict.
But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a televised speech late Tuesday accused the Taliban of being behind the latest attack.
Ghani also ordered Afghan security forces to renew "offensive operations" against the "Taliban and other terrorist groups."
The Taliban responded by promising a matching action on the battlefield, fueling fears of escalation in an already deadly war and dealing a fresh blow to the fragile U.S.-Taliban deal.
In a statement issued hours after Ghani's speech, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the terrorist attacks, but stopped short of endorsing Ghani's call for "offensive operations" against the insurgent group.
"We note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous," Pompeo said. Instead, the top U.S. diplomat underscored the need for moving the ongoing Afghan peace process forward.
Critics say the Trump administration appears resolved to bring home all U.S. forces and disengaging from the longest U.S. overseas military intervention, with the Afghan war now in its 19th year.
"The United States (under the deal with the Taliban) has relinquished its military strategy, and its concentration is on the peace process and ultimately full withdrawal," noted Zakir Jalaly, a Kabul-based political analyst.
"The United States no more supports offensive operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. We have seen a considerable reduction in U.S. forces-led raids against the Taliban since Feb. 29," he added.
Intra-Afghan peace talks
The U.S.-Taliban pact binds both sides not to attack each other's forces, but it does allow U.S. troops to defend their Afghan partner if attacked. The deal requires the Taliban to reduce attacks against Afghan security forces and negotiate a sustainable cease-fire in intra-Afghan peace talks.
Those proposed negotiations were supposed to open in March, but an extremely slow-moving prisoner swap between Kabul and the Taliban has delayed the much-sought crucial Afghan dialogue.
The Afghan government, which was not part of the agreement, needs to free up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan personnel being held by insurgents. So far, only 1,000 insurgent inmates have been set free in phases, while the Taliban has released 261 prisoners in small groups.