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Ghani Sees Taliban as His 'Political Opposition'

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, March 26, 2015.

Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, says the Taliban is a "political opposition" and peace with the Islamist insurgent group is essential for ending the conflict in his country. However, he reiterated that neighboring Pakistan, where Taliban leaders are allegedly sheltering, would play a key role in promoting the Afghan peace effort.

In a wide-ranging discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington Wednesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he is "cautiously optimistic" about his efforts to engage in peace talks with the Taliban.

“Some of them have legitimate grievances," he said. "People were falsely imprisoned, people were falsely tortured, they were tortured in private homes or private prisons.... How do you tell these people that you are sorry? I think South Africa and Rwanda have been most effective in devising collective forms of therapy because peace agreements, peace means forgiving blood."

Ghani promised to find a negotiated path for integrating Taliban combatants into Afghan society, provided they agree to respect the country’s constitution and end hostilities.

He said that Afghan forces are ready to defend their country and are determined not to allow extremist groups like the Islamic State militants to establish a footprint in Afghanistan. He admitted the Middle Eastern group does pose a threat.

"Peace with the Taliban is essential, not because of the military force they present, but because of the justification of conflict."

"Daesh," he said, using another term for the Islamic State group, "will be criminal activity. In Islamic theory of governance, they can be suppressed like mice.

"The Taliban are a different ideological factor," Ghani said. "They provide a level of political legitimacy that we must acknowledge that exists and because of this I have called them political opponents."

He struck an optimistic tone about his increased interaction with Pakistani political and military leaders to enhance counterterrorism cooperation and promote peace in his country.

“The problem fundamentally is not about peace with the Taliban, the problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For 13 years, we have been in [an] undeclared state of hostilities and this is the definition that we offered to our Pakistani counterparts, they have accepted this definition of the problem. That is the breakthrough," said Ghani.

Ghani praised the Pakistani military’s recently increased counterterrorism operations in areas near the Afghan border.

"That will reveal itself by results," he said, when asked about his efforts to seek Islamabad’s help in preventing the Taliban from using Pakistani soil for insurgent activities, and encouraging the group to come to the table for talks with Kabul.

Ghani vowed not to tolerate abuses of innocent people and said he would "fire anybody" involved in such acts.

"The past is a much more complex tapestry. We cannot sacrifice the future for the sake of the past. We must bring about a balance because if we go just looking at the past we will be destroying the future," he said.

Ghani is reforming the Afghan security forces. He said he has retired more than 60 army generals in the past six months to renew the leadership and address other concerns such as irregularities in defense procurements.