WASHINGTON: The United States urged the Taliban on Tuesday to speak with the Afghan government first if they want to hold peace talks with Washington.

“We have seen the Taliban statement. We will know the Taliban are serious about peaceful dialogue when they are willing to speak with the elected government of Afghanistan and end their brutal campaign of violence,” a State Department spokesperson told Dawn.

In an unexpected statement earlier this week, the Taliban reached out to the American people asking them to pressure President Donald Trump and “war-mongering” congressmen to end the near 17-year-old “occupation.”

The Afghan government, however, rejected the Taliban overture for peace insisting that the insurgent group needs to show its sincerity to peace by ceasing its attacks first.

The Taliban, who have influence over nearly half the country, launched a series of deadly attacks in Kabul in last month that killed and wounded hundreds.

“The Taliban have started the war and are continuing the war, if the Taliban want peace they should stop fighting,” Dawa Khan Menapal, a deputy spokesman of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, told reporters in Kabul this week.

“They keep killing innocent civilians — they should stop the battle and then reach out to Afghanistan not the Americans for peace talks.”

The demand for ceasing attacks also echoed in a US State Department’s statement issued in Washington. “The Taliban statement alone does not show willingness to engage in peace talks. The Taliban’s recent horrific terror attacks in Kabul speak louder than these words,” a State Department spokesperson said. “At this stage, everyone but the Taliban appears ready for peace.”

The US official noted President Ghani had made clear on numerous occasions that he was willing to commence a peace process. “If there are members of the Taliban that are ready to rejoin civilised society, they are welcome to be part of a reconciliation process,” he added.

The spokesperson noted that President Trump’s South Asia strategy, released last summer, had set conditions for a political settlement to end the war and “the onus of responsibility is now on the Taliban to demonstrate that they are ready to discuss peace.”

Supporting Kabul’s refusal to engage with the Taliban while the attacks continued, the US official said: “The Afghan government can only negotiate to end the war if the Taliban are ready. The recent attacks show this is not the case.”

The latest UN report on the situation in Afghanistan said that the Taliban were responsible for 42 per cent of the more than 10,000 Afghan civilian casualties in 2017.

After last month’s attacks, President Trump had ruled out peace talks with the Taliban, saying: “We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.”

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2018

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