Afghanistan’s Taliban has restated certain preconditions prior to ceasing hostilities, and has stopped short of formally rejecting a U.S.-backed four-nation process aimed at promoting Afghan peace.
The Islamist insurgency presented these views through its chief peace negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, at an unofficial two-day dialogue of Afghan stakeholders that concluded Sunday in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
The Track Two discussions come as senior officials from the United States, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan are engaged in regular four-way discussions aimed at clearing the way for direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“Peace should not be used as an instrument for achievement of one’s political, personal and party objectives. Unfortunately, foreigners and the Kabul administration are [now] engaged in these activities and do not have a real intention for peace,” Stanekzai said, without directly referring to the four-way peace process.
Pugwash Conferences, a Nobel Prize-winning group promoting solutions to the armed conflicts, hosted the Qatar meeting.
Taliban and Afghan government envoys as well as civil lawmakers, society and peace activists were invited to the Track Two conference for the informal discussions on ways to end the war in Afghanistan. Former Afghan interior minister Umar Daudzai and an uncle of President Ghani, Abdul Qayyum Kochi, were among the participants, but no government representative attended the meeting, according to foreign ministry officials in Kabul.
Taliban sources said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a written message to the conference, accepted the Taliban as a political opposition and said his government was ready to hold direct peace talks.
The sources added that acting Afghan Defense Minster Masoom Stanekzi sent Ghani’s message to the gathering on the final day.
It is a positive sign because previously the Afghan president was demanding China, the U.S. and Pakistan put pressure on the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table, said the Taliban sources.
There is no official word from Kabul, however, on who attended the Qatar dialogue, nor have the organizers issued a concluding statement about the deliberations.
Taliban chief negotiator Stanekzai, head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, told the meeting his group wanted complete withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign troops and establishment of an “independent Islamic system” in the country before it considered rejoining peace talks for ending the 15-year war.
He went on to demand official recognition for the Taliban’s Qatar office, release of its prisoners, removal of U.N. travel and financial restrictions on Taliban leaders, and an end to what he said was “poisonous propaganda” against the insurgent group.
Stanekzai insisted that these demands must be met before starting the peace process to ensure “feasible” progress towards peace.
The Taliban negotiator reiterated it wants\ed direct negations with the United States to discuss issues such as agreeing on a deadline for withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and removal of Taliban leaders’ names from a U.S. list of rewards for their arrests.
“But as to issues pertaining to the Afghans, the Islamic Emirate believes, the Afghans have preparedness and capability to resolve these issues themselves,” said Stanekzai.
He said the Taliban was committed to civil activities such as freedom of speech and women’s rights “in the light of Islamic rules, national interests and values.”
But the insurgent group is being widely condemned for last week's suicide attack against a mini bus carrying staff of the country's biggest television station, Tolo news.
The car bombing killed seven employees of the media group and wounded more than 20 others. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying the TV was airing anti-Islam, anti-Taliban and anti-Afghan reports to malign the group, and accused Tolo news of working as an "intelligence network."
The violence sparked a national and international outrage, and has led to street protests in many Afghan cities.