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To reach a peace deal, Taliban says Afghan president must go

Suhail Shaheen of the Taliban speaks in front of microphones.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen says the group has no plans to make a military push on the Afghan capital.
(Associated Press)

The Taliban says it doesn’t want to monopolize power, but it insists 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 with the Associated Press, 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 has swiftly captured territory in recent weeks, seized strategic border crossings and is threatening a number of provincial capitals, as the last U.S. and NATO soldiers leave Afghanistan. This week, the top U.S. military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, said at a news conference that the Taliban has “strategic momentum,” and he did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover. But he said it is not inevitable. “I don’t think the endgame is yet written,” he said.

Memories of the Taliban’s last time in power some 20 years ago, when it enforced a harsh brand of Islam that denied girls an education and barred women from work, have stoked fears of its return among many. Afghans who can afford it are applying by the thousands for visas to leave Afghanistan, fearing a violent descent into chaos. The U.S.-NATO withdrawal is more than 95% complete and due to be finished by Aug. 31.

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

As the U.S. hastens to exit Afghanistan by Aug. 31, women fear a potential return to power by the Taliban and its harsh view of their role in society.

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“I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power, because any governments who [sought] to monopolize power in Afghanistan in the past were not successful governments,” Shaheen said, 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 warmonger and accusing him of using his Tuesday speech on the Islamic holy day of Eid al-Adha 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 cease-fire 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 cease-fire, 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 that under this new government, women will be allowed to work, go to school and participate in politics but will have to wear the hijab, or headscarf. Women won’t be required to have a male relative with them to leave their home, he said, and Taliban commanders in newly occupied districts have orders that universities, schools and markets operate as before, including with the participation of women and girls.

The U.S. will move thousands of interpreters from Afghanistan, but it faces criticism for its lack of plans for other Afghans in danger from the Taliban.

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

Shaheen said that some Taliban commanders had ignored the leadership’s orders against repressive and drastic behavior 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 that there were no plans to make a military push on Kabul and that the Taliban had so far “restrained” itself from taking provincial capitals. But he warned it could, given the weapons and equipment it has acquired in newly captured districts. He contended that the majority of the Taliban’s battlefield successes came 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 controls about half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers, and though it has yet to capture any of the 34 provincial capitals, it is pressuring about half of them, Milley said. In recent days, the U.S. has carried out airstrikes in support of beleaguered Afghan government troops in the southern city of Kandahar, around which the Taliban has been amassing, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Thursday.

The rapid fall of districts and the seemingly disheartened response by Afghan government forces have prompted U.S.-allied warlords to resurrect militias with a violent history. For many Afghans weary of more than four decades of war, that raises fears of a repeat of the brutal civil war in the early 1990s in which those same warlords battled for power.

“No one wants a civil war, including me,” Shaheen said.

An Afghan tradition was all but stamped out by religious extremists who — hearing sin instead of song — outlawed music and threatened with death its practitioners.

Shaheen also repeated Taliban promises aimed at reassuring Afghans who fear the group.

Washington has promised to relocate thousands of U.S. military interpreters. Shaheen said they had nothing to fear from the Taliban and denied threatening them. But, he added, if some want to take asylum in the West because Afghanistan’s economy is so poor, “that is up to them.”

He also denied that the Taliban has threatened journalists and Afghanistan’s nascent civil society, which has been targeted by dozens of killings over the last year. The Islamic State group has taken responsibility for some, but the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for most of the killings while the Taliban in turn accuses the Afghan government of carrying out the killings to defame it. Rarely has the government made arrests in the killings or revealed the findings of its investigations.

Shaheen said journalists, including those working for Western media outlets, have nothing to fear from a government that includes the Taliban.

“We have not issued letters to journalists [threatening them], especially to those who are working for foreign media outlets. They can continue their work even in the future,” he said.


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