By James Mackenzie and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - The death last week of the Taliban's senior leader in southern Afghanistan in a U.S. air strike highlights a surge in operations amid pressure to coax the increasingly confident insurgents to accept talks to end the 17-year war.
As U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad makes a fresh round of visits to Afghanistan and neighbouring countries this week and resumes meetings with Taliban representatives, military operations have spiked sharply across the country.
The aim, say Afghan and U.S. officials, is to build as strong a position as possible for the hoped-for start of peace talks with the Taliban.
Khalilzad told U.S. broadcaster PBS last week that he was "in a hurry" to secure an agreement with the Taliban, ideally ahead of presidential elections scheduled for April 20.
While U.S. officials have avoided talk of deadlines, the new urgency has raised fears among many in the Afghan government that the United States seeks a quick way out of its longest war.
"The United States basically wants a dignified withdrawal," said one senior Afghan government official who is in near-daily contact with U.S. diplomats working on the peace process.
"Progress towards peace remains elusive," the Pentagon Lead Inspector General told Congress in the latest report last month, as civilian and military casualties grow and just 65 percent of the population lives under government control.
Large Taliban forces have this year overrun the western city of Farah and the central city of Ghazni, fuelling perceptions that the insurgents, estimated to number 60,000 fighters, are winning.
To regain the initiative, Gen. Scott Miller, who arrived as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in September, has pushed Afghan forces to go on the offensive, backed by U.S. Special Forces and air strikes.
One such strike killed Abdul Manan, the Taliban's shadow governor for Helmand province, on Saturday.
Defence ministry spokesman Ghafoor Ahmad Javed said 161 air strikes in the past two weeks by Afghanistan's own fledgling air force were part of operations which he estimated had killed hundreds of Taliban fighters.
"They've lost many commanders and suffered lots of casualties, they've lost training centres and economic support centres including narcotics," he said.
"When they're under pressure, they know they can't get anywhere without the peace process."
The death of two U.S. Special Forces soldiers and an airman in a roadside bomb blast near Ghazni last week also highlighted the Americans' increasingly active role.
"There is more fighting now than a few weeks ago," said Samilhullah, a resident of Ghazni, overrun this year by thousands of Taliban fighters in one of their biggest operations in years.
"I see many American and Afghan forces in my village and everyday there are sounds of explosions, gunfire and helicopters flying around."
The approach was designed to complement the diplomatic push toward opening negotiations with the Taliban, said Colonel Dave Butler, the spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"We're near a political settlement," he added. "If the Taliban want to keep fighting, we will fight and ensure that they feel the pressure."
The U.S. military has dropped more munitions in air strikes this year than any other full year since the height of the U.S. presence in 2011, seeking to bolster Afghan forces reeling from what officials say are unsustainable losses.
Afghan and Western officials have warned that a hasty withdrawal of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would lead to a collapse in understrength Afghan forces, which have been suffering 600 deaths on average every month since 2015.
The Taliban, who have refused to deal with the Afghan government, calling it an illegitimate "puppet" regime, have struck an increasingly confident tone in official statements, declaring this week that the U.S. was "on the brink of defeat".
However Taliban representatives have also acknowledged some progress in talks with Khalilzad, focusing on the withdrawal of international forces, the release of prisoners and lifting curbs on international travel by Taliban officials.
"There are certain secrets of our meeting with him which we don't want to disclose, as the United States is trying to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible," one Taliban official who has been involved in the Qatar talks told Reuters last month.
Trump's recent letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, urging him to help the process, underlines the importance the issue has garnered in Washington.
But both Western and Afghan officials are keenly aware that U.S. President Donald Trump has long been sceptical of the Afghanistan mission, and had to be persuaded to beef up U.S. forces there as part of the South Asia strategy announced last year.
While the discussions continue, diplomats in Kabul joke about the "Tweet of Damocles" hanging over the engagement, a reference to Trump's penchant for surprise announcements on social media.
"There is a real sense that the diplomatic and military effort has to be seen to be producing results quite soon, otherwise the White House may simply lose patience," said one Western diplomat in Kabul.
(Additional reporting by Mustafa Andalib in GHAZNI, Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR, Mohammad Stanekzai in LASHKAR GAH, Matin Sahak in MAZAR-I SHARIF; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)