Afghan security forces are "undeniably stretched" but resilient amid a push by the Taliban for more territory and concerns that Islamic State militants are seeking a foothold in the country, the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan has said.
Nicholas Haysom's comments came hours after a Taliban suicide bomber and six gunmen attacked the Afghan Parliament on Monday. The brazen assault ended after a nearly two-hour gunfight with Nato-trained Afghan security forces that left two people and all seven attackers dead.
Fighting has spiralled since the departure of most foreign forces from Afghanistan at the end of last year. The Taliban are pushing to take territory more than 13 years after a US-led military intervention toppled them from power.
The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001, launched their annual spring offensive in April.
Haysom said Afghan forces have been stretched, tested and faced operational challenges since taking on full security responsibilities.
Nonetheless, he said, "Afghanistan is meeting its security challenges" in the face of an intensifying conflict across the country.
"While the Afghan National Security Forces face operational challenges, their commitment is beyond question and they are demonstrating resilience in the face of insurgent efforts to take and hold ground," Haysom told the UN Security Council.
"There also remains considerable concern that (the Islamic State)...is seeking to establish a foothold. This demands greater regional involvement and collaboration to address this shared threat.”
The Islamic State has declared a caliphate in swathes of territory it controls in Syria and Iraq. A US-led alliance has been targeting the radical Islamist group with air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
The Taliban recently wrote to Islamic State's leader, urging the rival jihadist group to stop recruiting in Afghanistan and saying there is room for only "one flag, one leadership" in the fight to re-establish strict Islamist rule.
In sync with Haysom, Afghanistan's UN ambassador Zahir Tanin too praised his country's security forces.
"For the first time, Afghan forces have moved from a defensive to an offensive position and have shown more capability, potential and resilience than ever before," he told the Security Council.
Haysom said no progress will be made toward peace in Afghanistan unless the government and the Taliban meet directly to try and broker an end to the conflict.
"While the government has repeatedly stated its readiness to engage in direct talks with the Taliban, what is still missing is a clear indication from the Taliban that they are ready to engage directly with the government," he said. "Direct engagement is necessary for a negotiated agreement."
The new offensive against the Afghan government and people is being compounded by "an unprecedented convergence" of Taliban insurgents, more than 7,000 foreign fighters, and violent groups including the Islamic State, Tanin said.
Tanin told the Security Council that these groups not only target Afghan troops and civilians with suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, hostage-taking and assassinations but they seek control of districts and provinces as bases for their activities in Afghanistan and south and central Asia.
Both Tanin and Haysom said the influx of foreign fighters into Afghanistan is a result of the Pakistani military's campaign in neighbouring North Waziristan which began last year.
"Our estimate is that there are more than 7,000 foreign terrorist fighters" in Afghanistan now, Tanin said, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Pakistanis.
Haysom said he told the Security Council "that increasingly Afghanistan, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, is finding itself in the forefront of dealing with terrorists whose origins are the neighbours, and possibly whose eventual destination are its neighbours".
He sought greater collaboration and support for Afghanistan "in dealing with what is a regional, shared threat".