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Afghan Taliban Signaling New Interest In Peace

FILE: Former Qatari Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Ali bin Fahd al-Hajri (C) cuts the ribbon alongside a member of the Taliban's office Jan Mohammad Madani (L) at the opening ceremony of the new Taliban political office in Doha in 2013.
FILE: Former Qatari Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Ali bin Fahd al-Hajri (C) cuts the ribbon alongside a member of the Taliban's office Jan Mohammad Madani (L) at the opening ceremony of the new Taliban political office in Doha in 2013.

Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban movement is expressing interest in peace talks amid calls for its contact office in Qatar to be closed.

This week, the Taliban issued a statement reiterating their commitment to a negotiated solution in Afghanistan, and a senior insurgent delegation met with Chinese officials to discuss peace.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (formal name of the Taliban) is interested in finding a lasting solution to the problems in Afghanistan,” said the Taliban statement, issued on March 7. “Fighting is not our choice, but it has been imposed on us.”

The statement strongly justified the existence of the Taliban’s political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, by saying it provided an address for contacting the Taliban for peace talks.

Earlier this week, Pakistan’s Express Tribune daily reported a five-member delegation from the Taliban’s Qatar office visited China at the behest of Beijing. An unnamed Taliban source told the newspaper the visit was “focused on bringing about peace in Afghanistan and resolving the issue through negotiations.”

The statement and the visit came after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called for closing the Talban’s Qatar office last month.

Afghanistan’s private Tolo TV reported that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani last month to shut down the Taliban office in Doha if the Taliban launched their deadly offensive in spring.

“If the Taliban do not stop attacks and violence till spring and summer, sanctions should be imposed against the group,” said presidential spokesman Shah Hussain Murtazawi.

While addressing Afghan security forces last week, Ghani once again called on the Taliban to join the peace process but had strong words for their fugitive leaders.

“Taliban leaders enjoy a life of luxury. Each one takes several wives, and their children enjoy opulence,” he told Afghan soldiers and officers on February 27. “Yet some of them employ the name of our sacred religion to foment violence and savagery.”

On March 1, he accused the Taliban of facilitating terrorism in Afghanistan.

“Currently, 20 disparate terrorist groups are operating in Afghanistan. While they are different organizations, their crimes and the harm they cause to our people are the same,” he told lawmakers on March 6. “The Taliban have paved the way for all these groups to operate.”

Kabul and its Western allies have been trying to negotiate with the Taliban for nearly a decade. The United States also supported a reconciliation among Afghans as a pillar of former President Barack Obama’s approach to the country after assuming office in 2009.

Former President Hamid Karzai first employed informal contacts to woo Taliban leaders but formed a High Peace Council in 2010 to embark on a formal peace process with the Taliban.

A suicide bomber posing as a Taliban envoy, however, killed the peace council head and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani in September 2011.

Kabul’s Western-back peace efforts stalled after the Taliban refused to negotiate with an Afghan government they said represented an occupied country because of the presence of NATO forces. They maintained they will only negotiate with the U.S. to end its military presence. Karzai, too, had strong reservations over the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar in 2013.

After assuming office in September 2014, Ghani pivoted toward Pakistan to win its support for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Kabul has always claimed the Taliban are a Pakistani surrogate and that a change in Islamabad’s outlook would force them to negotiate.

In July 2015, Pakistan hosted the first direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The process couldn’t take off after news of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death was leaked. He had died in April 2013 but the Taliban had kept his death secret.

A violent Taliban military campaign in 2015 and 2016 forced Kabul to concentrate on a military strategy to prevent the insurgents from overrunning large population centers after they made rapid advances in rural areas.

Covert contacts between the two sides have so far yielded no breakthrough. Kabul is adamant that while it welcomes any initiative to help with the peace process, the Taliban should only be seen as rebels.

Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, an official with the Afghan High Peace Council, cautiously welcomed the Taliban’s talks with Beijing.

“We welcome all friendly efforts that encourage Afghan-led talks between Afghans,” he told Radio Afghanistan. “But no one should shut their eyes to the fact that these factions are armed rebels.”

– Radio Free Afghanistan editor Qadir Habib and correspondent Ikram Ikramullah contributed reporting.