US President Joe Biden faces "serious dilemmas" in Afghanistan as a deadline to withdraw troops nears and the Taliban show no sign of ending their bloodshed, a top US official warned.
The new US leader has ordered a review of the deal Washington cut with the Taliban last year, which promised the withdrawal of all foreign forces by May 1 in return for security guarantees from the militants and a commitment to peace talks with the Afghan government.
The talks are progressing painfully slowly, but scarcely a day goes by without a bomb blast, attack on government forces, or a targeted assassination somewhere in the country.
"Violence level remains very, very high... which is shocking and deeply disappointing," a senior US State Department official told AFP this week on condition of anonymity.
"It is unquestionably damaging the atmosphere for any kind of a settlement of Afghanistan's conflict."
The Taliban routinely deny responsibility for the attacks -- and many are claimed by the rival jihadist group Islamic State -- but Washington has no doubt who is to blame.
"In our view, the Taliban are responsible for the vast majority of the targeted killings that we have seen," the official said, adding they had created "an ecosystem of violence".
"It is clearly intended, I think, to demoralise citizens... to add to doubts that people have about their government and to add to the aura of inevitability of (a Taliban) victory," he added.
- No US combat deaths in a year -
The new Biden administration, he said -- which was committed to upholding the deal despite the review -- now faced "serious dilemmas".
If Washington decided to keep troops on after the deadline, US forces faced coming under attack once again -- following a year without a single American death in combat.
But if the US pulls out as scheduled, it leaves the fragile Afghan government at the mercy of a determined insurgent force that could result in fresh carnage that would be impossible for the world to ignore.
The Pentagon has over the past year reduced the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, while NATO defence ministers will later this month discuss the fate of their 10,000 personnel in the country -- most in backroom support roles.
Any risk to the lives of "American and coalition forces... is going to be very, very high on our priorities", the US official warned.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has urged Biden to avoid rushing the withdrawal, and wants the new US President to put more pressure on the Taliban to make concessions at ongoing peace talks in Doha, Qatar.
"The Islamic Republic (government) side is anxious and ready to negotiate. They went to Doha prepared... and they got nobody to meet with and that's disappointing," the US official said.
The Taliban were winning few friends with its approach, he added.
"What they miscalculate is that it grotesquely misshapes the battlefield in terms of world opinion and in terms of the support that this country has."