KABUL - Afghan Taliban have reacted violently to the increased airstrikes in Afghanistan , launching a wave of deadly attacks across the war-torn country, including in Kabul, in a devastating display of defiance.
The Taliban, by far Afghanistan 's biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks last month alone, the Washington, DC-based terrorism research group TRAC said, describing the number as 'unprecedented' for January.
Combined with increased activity by relative newcomers IS, which has been expanding beyond its eastern stronghold, the country appeared to be 'at a flashpoint almost to the point of no return', TRAC warned in a new report.
The escalation of the conflict foreshadows a 'particularly bloody year', Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC told AFP, forecasting more Afghan and US casualties.
Afghanistan 's so-called 'fighting season' traditionally starts in the spring before easing over the winter when freezing temperatures and heavy snow make combat more difficult.
But in recent years Taliban militants have continued to carry out attacks throughout the colder months.
This winter has been worse than ever, Borhan Osman, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said in a report.
'Afghanistan is suffering more intense violence now than during any other winter... since 2001,' Osman said, highlighting last month's attacks in the <link>Afghan <link> capital that killed more than 130 people in less than 10 days.
- 'Escalating stalemate' -
Among the worst of the attacks was an assault on Kabul's luxury Intercontinental Hotel on January 20, a terrifying hours-long ordeal which saw Taliban insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests charge from room to room searching for foreigners.
That was followed a week later by a devastating bombing involving an explosives-packed ambulance in a crowded street that killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians, and also claimed by the Taliban.
'This looks like a mutually escalating stalemate' as both sides adapt to the new tactics of the other, Afghanistan Analysts Network senior analyst Kate Clark told AFP.
The fighting this winter has been fuelled by more Taliban fighters remaining on the frozen battlefield instead of regrouping in Pakistan, which has long been accused of providing safe havens to the militants -- charges Islamabad denies.
Former general and military analyst Attiqullah Amarkhil told AFP that Taliban fighters had been ordered to 'move forward instead of going back and forth' across the border.
'I have not been to Pakistan for a year and I will not go there,' Mawlawi Ahmad, a Taliban commander in the restive southern province of Helmand, told AFP.
The escalation in fighting has all but dashed hopes for peace negotiations with the Taliban anytime soon.
Trump ruled out talks last month after the spate of attacks, an apparent reversal of the position set out in his Afghanistan strategy.
But Washington is still hoping to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said last week following a trip to Kabul.
Sullivan's comments come as the <link>Afghan <link>capital gears up for the Kabul Process meeting at the end of February, where the central government is under pressure to present a framework for peace talks.
But expectations for progress are low.
'There's no way Kabul, or Washington for that matter, would agree to extend an olive branch to an outfit that is placing explosives in ambulances,' Kugelman said. APP/AFP