Kabul ready for talks with Taliban to ‘save country’

01 Mar 2018

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AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with a foreign delegate during the Kabul Process conference at the Presidential Palace on Wednesday.—AFP
AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with a foreign delegate during the Kabul Process conference at the Presidential Palace on Wednesday.—AFP

KABUL: Afghan Presi­dent Ashraf Ghani offered recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group on Wednesday as part of a proposed political process that he said could lead to talks aimed at ending more than 16 years of war.

The offer, made at the start of an international conference aimed at creating a platform for peace talks, adds to a series of signals from both the Western-backed government and the Taliban suggesting a greater willingness to consider dialogue.

Mr Ghani proposed a ceasefire and release of prisoners as part of a range of options including new elections, involving the militants, and a constitutional review as part of a pact with the Taliban to end a conflict that last year alone killed or wounded more than 10,000 Afghan civilians.

“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” the president said in opening remarks to the conference attended by officials from around 25 countries involved in the so-called Kabul Process.

“The Taliban are expec­ted to give input to the peace-making process, the goal of which is to draw the Taliban, as an organisation, to peace talks,” he said, adding that he would not “pre-judge” any group seeking peace.

He urged the Taliban to take part in peace talks to “save the country”, offering security and incentives such as passports to militants who join the negotiations.

Recognition of Taliban as political group proposed; Pakistan hails Ghani’s invitation to dialogue

Elaborating, he said the Afghan government would provide passports and issue visas to Taliban members and their families and open an office for them in Kabul. Mr Ghani said his government would also work to remove sanctions against Taliban leaders.

The comments, made a month after a suicide attack in central Kabul killed around 100 people, represented a change in tone for Mr Ghani, who has regularly called the Taliban “terrorists” and “rebels” although he has also offered to talk with parts of the movement that accepted peace.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan welcomed the offer and said it “strongly supports the vision for peace through intra-Afghan dialogue”.

The Taliban, fighting to restore Islamic rule after their 2001 defeat by US-led troops, have offered to begin talks with the United States but have so far refused direct talks with Kabul. It was unclear whether they would be prepared to shift their stance, despite growing international pressure.

However President Ghani, who recently helped launch the latest stage in a major regional gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, said the momentum for peace was building from neighbouring countries that increasingly saw the necessity of a stable Afghanistan.

“The Taliban show awareness of these contextual shifts and seem to be engaged in a debate on the implications of acts of violence for their future,” he said.

Framework for negotiation

Mr Ghani said a framework for peace negotiations should be created with the Taliban recognised as a legitimate group, with their own political office to handle negotiations in Kabul or another agreed location.

Taliban officials have acknowledged that they have faced pressure from friendly countries to accept talks and said their recent offers to talk to the United States reflected concern that they could be seen to be standing in the way of peace.

There was no immediate response from them to Mr Ghani’s offer although one Taliban official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was being studied by senior Taliban leaders.

In return for Mr Ghani’s offer, the Taliban would have to recognise the Afghan government and respect the rule of law, including the rights of women, one of the priorities for Afghanistan’s international partners.

In addition, Taliban prisoners could be released and their names removed from international blacklists, while security arrangements could be made for Taliban agreeing to join a process of reconciliation. Former fighters and refugees could be reintegrated and provided with jobs.

Talks with Pakistan

The Afghan president said the process would be accompanied by coordinated diplomatic support including a global effort to persuade Pakistan, which Kabul has regularly accused of aiding the Taliban, of the advantages of a stable Afghanistan.

He renewed an offer of talks with Pakistan, which rejects the accusations and points to the thousands of its citizens who have been killed by militant groups over the years.—Agencies

For its part, Pakistan welcomed Mr Ghani’s offer and said it would facilitate the Afghan peace process, added Baqir Sajjad Syed from Islamabad.

“Pakistan welcomes President Ghani’s offer of seeking peace through dialogue and understanding and would do its best to facilitate the realisation of this noble initiative,” National Security Adviser retired Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua told Afghan Ambassador Dr Omar Zakhilwal, who called on him and briefed him on the international conference in Kabul.

Gen Janjua told the Afghan envoy that Pakistan wanted an early end to the internecine bloodshed in the Afghanistan and has all along supported efforts for political reconciliation under international and regional peace initiatives.

Foreign Office spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal was, however, was cautious and said he would make a statement only after the conference had issued a communiqué. “Once the statement is formally released, I will be able to comment on it,” he said.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2018