ISLAMABAD: The Taliban say they don’t want to monopolise power, but they insist there won’t be peace in Afghanistan until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed.

In an interview, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, who is also a member of the group’s negotiating team, laid out the insurgents’ stance on what should come next in a country on the precipice.

The Taliban have swiftly captured territory in recent weeks, seized strategic border crossings and are threatening a number of provincial capitals, as the last US and Nato soldiers leave Afghanistan. This week, the top US military officer, Gen Mark Milley, told a Pentagon press conference that the Taliban have strategic momentum, and he did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover. But he said it is not inevitable. “I don’t think the end game is yet written,” he said.

The US-Nato withdrawal is more than 95 per cent complete and due to be finished by Aug 31.

Shaheen says there are no plans to make a military push on Kabul

Shaheen said the Taliban would lay down their weapons when a negotiated government acceptable to all sides in the conflict is installed in Kabul and Ghani’s government is gone.

“I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power because any governments who (sought) to monopolise power in Afghanistan in the past, were not successful governments,” said Shaheen, apparently including the Taliban’s own five-year rule in that assessment. “So we do not want to repeat that same formula.”

But he was also uncompromising on the continued rule of Ghani, calling him a war monger and accusing him of using his Tuesday speech on the occasion of Eidul Azha to promise an offensive against the Taliban.

Shaheen dismissed Ghani’s right to govern, resurrecting allegations of widespread fraud that surrounded Ghani’s 2019 election win. After that vote, both Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president. After a compromise deal, Abdullah is now No 2 in the government and heads the reconciliation council.

Ghani has often said he will remain in office until new elections can determine the next government. His critics including ones outside the Taliban accuse him of seeking only to keep power, causing splits among government supporters.

Last weekend, Abdullah headed a high-level delegation to the Qatari capital Doha for talks with Taliban leaders. It ended with promises of more talks, as well as greater attention to the protection of civilians and infrastructure.

Shaheen called the talks a good beginning. But he said the government’s repeated demands for a ceasefire while Ghani stayed in power were tantamount to demanding a Taliban surrender. “They don’t want reconciliation, but they want surrendering,” he said.

“Before any ceasefire, there must be an agreement on a new government acceptable to us and to other Afghans,” he said. “Then there will be no war.”

Shaheen said under the new government, women would be allowed to work, go to school, and participate in politics, but would have to wear the hijab, or headscarf. He said women would not be required to have a male relative with them to leave their home, and that Taliban commanders in newly occupied districts have orders that universities, schools and markets operate as before, including with the participation of women and girls.

However, there have been repeated reports from captured districts of Taliban imposing harsh restrictions on women, even setting fire to schools. One gruesome video that emerged appeared to show Taliban killing captured commandos in northern Afghanistan.

Shaheen said some Taliban commanders had ignored the leaderships’ orders against repressive and drastic behaviour and that several had been put before a Taliban military tribunal and punished, though he did not provide specifics. He contended the video was fake, a splicing of separate footage.

Shaheen said there were no plans to make a military push on Kabul and that the Taliban had so far restrained themselves from taking provincial capitals. But he warned they could, given the weapons and equipment they had acquired in newly captured districts.

He contended that the majority of the Taliban’s battlefield successes had come through negotiations, not fighting. “Those districts which have fallen to us and the military forces who have joined us... were through mediation of the people, through talks,” he said.

“They (did not fall) through fighting... it would have been very hard for us to take 194 districts in just eight weeks.” The Taliban control about half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centres, and while they have yet to capture any of the 34 provincial capitals, they are pressuring about half of them, according to Milley.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2021

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