KABUL — Two American service members were killed in combat in Afghanistan on Wednesday, U.S. military officials said, as U.S. negotiators returned to Qatar to resume peace talks with Taliban insurgents and reach a final agreement on the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.
The Army Special Forces soldiers died of wounds suffered in small-arms fire in Faryab province, the Department of Defense said in a news release Thursday. They were identified as Master Sgt. Luis F. DeLeon-Figueroa, 31, of Chicopee, Mass., and Master Sgt. Jose J. Gonzalez, 35, of La Puente, Calif.
The deaths bring to 14 the number of U.S. service members killed by hostile forces this year, surpassing the total of 13 killed in 2018. About 2,400 have died in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. In July, two U.S. soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan army soldier who opened fire at a rural military base.
The Trump administration is intent on bringing home the bulk of U.S. forces here by next year. The current peace proposal, which top U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad presented to President Trump last week, would begin bringing home about 5,000 of the 14,000 troops now in Afghanistan once the Taliban leaders formally agree.
The insurgents have demanded that all American forces leave before they consider meeting with the Afghan government about the country’s future. They have unleashed a wave of violence in recent months in an effort to gain an advantage in negotiations, including several deadly bombings and ground assaults in Kabul that left scores dead.
In an interview Thursday in Doha, the Qatari capital, Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen told CBS News that he thought the most recent U.S. troop deaths would have a “positive impact” on the talks. He said the killings demonstrated that “it is very necessary to put an end to the war.”
U.S. officials have said the two sides are nearing agreement on the issue of troop withdrawals and on a Taliban pledge to cut ties with al-Qaeda. But disagreements reportedly remain about two other U.S. demands — that the Taliban agree to honor a comprehensive cease-fire and to meet with Afghan officials in follow-up talks.
Shaheen, in the interview, suggested that there is support within the Afghan government for the Islamic State, a separate Sunni extremist militia that has been fighting both the Taliban and joint U.S. and Afghan forces. He claimed that such support is “an open secret” but gave no evidence.
The Islamic State claimed a suicide bombing at a large Kabul wedding Friday night that killed 80 people and left more than 160 wounded. The blast left the capital in shock. The militia has claimed dozens of other deadly bombings in Kabul and other cities.
President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking reelection in a vote scheduled for late September, was forced to cancel elaborate plans to celebrate the country’s independence from Britain in 1919. Instead, he gave an emotional speech Sunday, vowing to wipe out the Islamic State and avenge the wedding deaths.
Two weeks earlier, hours after Ghani kicked off his campaign, the office of his top running mate was bombed and assaulted by gunmen, leaving 20 people dead. Officials blamed the Taliban, who have also vowed to attack the polls. Many Afghans believe the elections are likely to be postponed.