ISLAMABAD: Taliban chief Mullah Omar endorsed on Wednesday the recently started peace talks with the Afghan government and assured his fighters that he would not negotiate to the detriment of their interests.

In his annual Eid message, Mullah Omar defended the dialogue as “legitimate” and an “integral part of prophetic politics”.

This was the first public endorsement by the militant group’s reclusive leader of the dialogue process with the Afghan government that began in Murree July 7. His words contrasted the ambiguously phrased statement issued soon after the first round of talks by a Taliban spokesman who had spoken about the Doha political office having been given full responsibility for any negotiations.

The peace talks hosted by Pakistan were also attended by officials from China and the US.

The second round of talks is planned to be held soon after Eid, but the venue is still not known.

Speaking hours after Mullah Omar’s Eid statement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asked the Taliban to present their written demands at the next round and expressed the hope that the talks would lead to a sustained peace and reconciliation process.

At the first round, the Taliban delegation had demanded withdrawal of foreign forces and lifting of UN sanctions on their leaders. They had also raised the issue of treatment of Taliban prisoners in Afghan jails.

In his statement, Mullah Omar defended the dialogue by citing instances from the life of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and religious traditions.

“As our holy leader, the beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), was actively engaged in fighting the infidels in the fields of ‘Badr’ and ‘Khyber’, he simultaneously participated in agreements beneficial for Muslims, held meetings with envoys of infidels, sent messages and delegations to them and on various occasions even undertook the policy of face-to-face talks with warring infidel parties,” the Taliban chief said.

“If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited,” he added.

While reiterating the reasons for fighting the “foreign occupation”, he dwelt upon the objectives behind participation in the peace process.

“The objectives behind our political endeavours as well as contacts and interactions with countries of the world and our own Afghans are to bring an end to the occupation and to establish an independent Islamic system in our country.”

Notable in the statement was Mullah Omar’s respectful reference to the Afghan government as “our own Afghans”. This represented a marked change in the tone of the Taliban leadership towards the government in Kabul, whom they did not recognise in the past and considered it as a product of foreign intervention.

The participation of Taliban representatives in the peace talks implied their acceptance of the legitimacy of the Kabul government.

He referred to Afghan soldiers as “naive youngsters”.

The Taliban leader touched upon the differences within his ranks and counselled unity.

“Since maintaining the unity of Jihadi front in our country is a religious obligation, we have therefore directed all our Mujahideen to preserve their unity and forcefully prevent all those elements who attempt to create differences, damage this Jihadi front or try to disperse the Mujahideen,” the message said.

Besides other factors causing divisions within the Taliban, there have been reports of serious differences among militant commanders on joining the peace process. Defections from Taliban ranks were also feared.

His message tried to allay those concerns.

“All Mujahideen and countrymen should be confident that in this process, I will unwaveringly defend our legal rights and viewpoint everywhere. We have established a ‘Political Office’ for political affairs, entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring and conducting all political activities,” the Taliban leader emphasised.

In an apparent reference to the emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan, he said that the foreign forces had reduced their numbers and restricted themselves to their fortified bases, but have in their place introduced “notorious figures of our society, mercenary forces trained by foreign intelligence agencies”.

Daesh has in the past few months increased its footprint in Afghanistan establishing itself in previously Taliban-controlled areas. Daesh and Taliban are locked in fight also for control of some other regions.

The Taliban leader said his group “formally recognises the legitimate rights of all Afghans including minorities as our religious duty”.

AFP adds: Mullah Omar’s statement is “different from previous Taliban statements”, said Kabul-based political analyst Ahmad Saeedi.

“In addition to war, the Taliban leader talks about peace and negotiations,” Saeedi said.

“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.”

Published in Dawn ,July 16th, 2015

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