Taliban Endorse Peace Talks With Kabul

Taliban Endorse Peace Talks With KabulTaliban Endorse Peace Talks With Kabul

Taliban leader Mullah Omar on Wednesday hailed as “legitimate” peace talks aimed at ending Afghanistan’s 13-year war, in his first comments on the nascent dialogue, easing concerns that it lacked the leadership’s backing.

“If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited,” he said in a statement on the Taliban’s website, AFP reported.

“Political endeavors and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate … principle.”

Afghan officials sat down with Taliban cadres last week in Murree, a tourist town in the hills north of Islamabad, Pakistan, for their first face-to-face talks aimed at ending the bloody insurgency.

They agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing international praise, but many militant commanders openly questioned the legitimacy of the Taliban negotiators, exposing dangerous fault lines within the movement.

In his annual message before the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the reclusive leader backed negotiations, though he did not refer specifically to last week’s meeting.

Several informal meetings have been held in recent months between Taliban representatives and Afghan officials and activists, but last week’s meeting is seen as a significant step forward.

Afghan officials have not said when and where the next round of negotiations will take place, but it is widely expected to be conducted after the Ramadan holiday.

 Different Taliban

Kabul-based political analyst Ahmad Saeedi underlined Wednesday’s statement as “different from previous Taliban statements.”

“In addition to war, the Taliban leader talks about peace and negotiations. There is no doubt a gradual change is developing in the Taliban’s attitude. It is now for the Afghan government to use this golden opportunity and engage them smartly.”

Wednesday’s statement marks the first comments on the process from Mullah Omar, whose rumors of ill-health and even death regularly emerge.

Ousted from power by the 2001 US-led invasion, the Taliban soon regrouped as an insurgency battling NATO troops and Afghan security forces. After the war began, Mullah Omar went into hiding and has not been seen in public since. The US has offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to his capture.

Though the Taliban are divided among rival factions, Mullah Omar continues to enjoy the loyalty of many local figures. However, in the absence of a clear lead from the top, some fighters have fallen back on the Taliban’s traditional position, that there can be no meaningful talks until all foreign forces leave Afghan soil.

NATO ended its combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of December, but a smaller residual force remains in the country to train Afghan forces, due to leave altogether by the end of 2016.

 Fears of IS Emergence

But talks are dependent on another contributing factor: The emergence of a local branch of the Islamic State, an extremist group that last year declared a “caliphate” across large areas of Iraq and Syria it controls.

The Taliban warned IS last month against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some militants, inspired by the group’s success, defecting to swear allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the invisible Mullah Omar.

US drone strikes over the past week have killed dozens of suspected IS-linked cadres in Afghanistan, including the group’s Afghanistan-Pakistan regional chief Hafiz Saeed.

Also on Wednesday, 13 Afghan civilians were wounded by a roadside bomb that was detonated by remote control in northern Faryab Province, according to Baryalai Basheryar, deputy provincial police chief.

The notoriously uncompromising IS has shown no desire to negotiate, and if the Taliban fault lines widen, there is a danger the talks process could drive more of its insurgents into the arms of the Middle Eastern militant group.

“We have ... directed all our fighters to preserve their unity and forcefully prevent all those elements who attempt to create differences, damage this front,” Omar’s statement said in an oblique reference to IS.