Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has again invited the Taliban to peace talks at a “mutually agreeable” venue, promising the insurgents they eventually will be allowed to open a representative office if significant progress is made.
Ghani made the offer while addressing a peace conference he convened Tuesday in Kabul of regional and international partners to discuss ways to end the deadly conflict in Afghanistan and boost cooperation to counter the Islamic State-led emerging regional threat of terrorism.
“We would accept that the location for peace talks can be anywhere that is mutually agreeable, whether it be in Kabul where we would provide guarantees or elsewhere. If there is agreement to develop a peace roadmap acceptable to both sides, we would allow Taliban groups to open a representative office so that both sides can meet in safety,” said Ghani.
The conference - named the "Kabul Process on Peace and Security Cooperation" — was attended by representatives from 26 countries and international organizations. It took place as the turmoil-hit nation witnesses some of the worst terrorist attacks in years and unprecedented Taliban battlefield advances since 2001.
A powerful bomb went off at a main mosque in the western city of Herat on Tuesday, killing at least 10 people and wounding many more, Afghan officials said. There were no immediate claims of responsibility and a Taliban spokesman denied its involvement.
On May 31, a massive truck bombing of the Afghan capital’s diplomatic section killed more than 150 people and injured hundreds of others, including foreigners.
The Taliban said it had nothing to do with the blast, the deadliest attack in the 16-year-old conflict.
‘Offering a chance for peace’
While offering peace talks to the Islamist insurgency, Ghani reiterated his preconditions, including recognition of the Afghan constitution, continuity of the reforms of educating and advancing the rights of women, and renunciation of violence and linkages with terrorist groups.
“We are offering a chance for peace but we must also be clear that this is not an open-ended opportunity,” Ghani said.
The Taliban unofficially maintains its "political office" in Qatar, but Kabul does not recognize it and has been pushing Qatari authorities to close it down.
A Taliban spokesman rejected Ghani's latest offer of a peace dialogue and denounced Tuesday’s Kabul gathering as another attempt to "endorse and prolong foreign occupation” of Afghanistan.
“The Kabul administration wants peace talks only for the Taliban to surrender but this fake process will never succeed,” said Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement sent to media, including VOA.
He asserted that the Taliban, and Afghans in general, would welcome any peace conference that is organized for ending the “occupation" of their country because all other gatherings would be “futile and unproductive.”
Ghani, in his speech, also underscored the urgency of resolving the conflict, saying Taliban-sponsored terrorism is attracting terrorists linked to Syria-based Islamic State to find refuge in Afghanistan.
“Global terror has targeted Afghanistan … Best estimates show an increase from 200 to 11,000 [IS-linked] foreign fighters over the past four years,” Ghani noted.
The U.S. military, however, estimated the number of IS loyalists in Afghanistan stood at about 3,000 at the group's peak two years ago, but sustained counterterrorism operations have since reduced the number to fewer than 800, according to American military officials.
Ghani again criticized neighboring Pakistan for a lack of cooperation in promoting Afghan peace. Afghan officials allege that Taliban insurgents are using sanctuaries on Pakistani soil to wage the insurgency.
The Afghan spy agency blamed the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally, for conducting the May 31 attack in Kabul with the direct support of the Pakistani intelligence agency.
Authorities in Pakistan have strongly rejected what they say are baseless allegations and part of a “malicious agenda” to damage renewed efforts Islamabad has been making to improve bilateral ties and enhance cooperation to fight terrorism.
After a special meeting of top commanders Tuesday, the Pakistani military pledged to continue its cooperation with Afghanistan in fighting terrorism and militancy.
“The forum took exception to the unwarranted accusations and threats against Pakistan in the aftermath of the Kabul blast. The forum also concluded that instead of blaming Pakistan, Afghanistan needs to look inward and identify the real issues,” said a statement issued after the meeting.