The United Nations envoy to Afghanistan has urged the Taliban to accept an offer by Afghanistan’s government of direct peace negotiations that could lead to an end to more than 16 years of fighting.
"The offer of negotiation is on the table," Tadamichi Yamamoto on March 8 told a UN Security Council meeting that renewed the mandate of the UN political mission in the war-torn country for another year.
"It is now incumbent upon the Taliban to come forward with an offer of their own, and start direct talks with the government to put an end to the suffering of the Afghan people," said Yamamoto, who also heads the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
"Making peace and reaching out to opponents requires resolve, courage, and above all national unity," Yamamoto said, adding that "political leaders need to put the national interest above a partisan agenda."
On February 28, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered to allow the Taliban to establish itself as a political party and said he would work to remove sanctions on the militant group, among other incentives, if it joined the government in peace negotiations.
In return, the militants would have to recognize the Kabul government and respect the rule of law.
But the Taliban has continued to reject direct peace talks with the Afghan government and insisted it will only negotiate with the United States, which it calls a "foreign occupying force." The Taliban also says that NATO forces must withdraw before negotiations can begin.
The United States has refused to withdraw troops as demanded by the Taliban and has insisted that Kabul must play a lead role in peace negotiations.
The Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks in 2015, but they broke down almost immediately.
Earlier this week, Washington called on the Taliban to give "serious" consideration to Ghani's offer.
"This is not a surrender that's being offered to the Taliban, but a dignified process for reaching a political framework," said Alice Wells, a U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of South and Central Asian affairs.
Wells is scheduled to deliver remarks on Signs Of Hope For Afghan Peace Talks on March 9 at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
The Western-backed government in Kabul has been struggling to fend off the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO troops in 2014.
The new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, announced in August, aims at breaking a stalemate with the insurgents and at pushing them to the negotiating table.
The United States has since deployed 3,000 more troops to the country to train, advise, and assist as well as to conduct counterterrorism missions, and increased air strikes against the militants. The United States currently has about 14,000 uniformed personnel in Afghanistan.
Addressing the UN Security Council, Yamamoto expressed concern over the growing number of civilian casualties at the hands of militants from a branch of the extremist group Islamic State in Afghanistan.
He also said he hoped parliamentary elections could be held in 2018 and a presidential vote in 2019, but that "timelines remain tight."