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Kabul Skeptical of Afghan Taliban Vow to Protect New Infrastructure Projects


FILE - Members of the Afghan special forces are seen near an election commission office during an attack by Taliban insurgents in Kabul.

FILE - Members of the Afghan special forces are seen near an election commission office during an attack by Taliban insurgents in Kabul.

The Afghan Taliban, accused by the government of destroying millions of dollars’ worth of national improvements, vowed Tuesday to protect a new natural gas pipeline, a copper mine, and upgrades to highways and railways.

A Taliban statement released by the group's spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said Taliban leadership does not oppose development projects that benefit the Afghan people and will work to guard projects from harm.

"The Islamic Emirate [Taliban movement] not only supports all national projects, which are in the interest of the people and result in the development and prosperity of the nation, but are also committed to protecting them," according to the Taliban statement.

The Afghan government, which is battling Taliban insurgency in dozens of provinces across the country, called the statement disingenuous.

Target infrastructure

The government has accused the Taliban of repeatedly targeting infrastructure projects in the country, crippling Afghanistan's ability to make improvements needed to decrease its dependency on foreign aid.

FILE - Afghan security forces rush to respond to a complex Taliban attack on the campus of the American University in Kabul, Aug. 24, 2016.

FILE - Afghan security forces rush to respond to a complex Taliban attack on the campus of the American University in Kabul, Aug. 24, 2016.

"Over the past few months, they [Taliban] have inflicted more than two billion Afghanis [about $300 million] of damage to infrastructure and public properties in 11 provinces," Shah Hussain Murtazawi, a deputy presidential spokesman, told VOA's Afghan service.

Murtazawi said the Taliban has destroyed 302 schools, 41 health clinics, 50 mosque minarets, 5,305 houses, 1,818 shops, a government building, six bridges, 293 overpasses, and 123 kilometers of roads in 11 provinces.

Last winter, millions of Kabul residents were left without a dependable power source for more than a month after the Taliban cut a critical power line providing electricity from neighboring Uzbekistan, in the country's north.

"They have to prove their promises in action," he added.

In some areas, the Taliban has allowed national projects to continue in return for receiving a financial percentage of project revenue, experts in Kabul said.

But Tuesday, Taliban leaders ordered its members to help protect the projects that are in the "higher interest of Islam and the country," including the $10 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project and the multibillion-dollar Mes Aynak, the Afghan-Chinese copper mine venture near Kabul.

Seeking support

Analysts said Tuesday's statement reflects a Taliban effort to win over Afghan sentiments as it continues to push for more territorial control and also show foreigners that it will protect their investments.

FILE - A security guard stands amid the damage of a truck bombing, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 1, 2016.

FILE - A security guard stands amid the damage of a truck bombing, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 1, 2016.

The government is in control of 258 of the 407 Afghan districts, while the insurgent group controls 33, and 116 districts are "contested," according to a recent U.S. military assessment.

The Taliban "aims to project itself as a more moderate version of other regional militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban. For this reason, an expression of public support for a national project should not come as a surprise," said Michael Kugelman, an Afghan analyst at the Wilson Center, a global policy research group.

The Taliban promise comes a day after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, inaugurated the Asian International Railway, which connects Afghanistan with countries in the region and, one day, with Europe. The Taliban has said it will not interfere in the railway operation.

Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based Taliban analyst, said the Taliban is attempting to assure neighboring Turkmenistan of its support.

"A delegation from Taliban's Qatar office recently visited Turkmenistan to discuss the railway project," Muzhda said. "They not only did not oppose the project, but also promised not to attack Afghan security personnel assigned to the security of the railway line project."

But analyst Kugelman said the Taliban often goes back on its promises.

"There's also good reason to believe that it would publicly praise a railway link like this one and then end up trying to blow up its infrastructure without admitting to doing so," he said.

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