The fugitive leader of the Afghan Taliban renewed his call Wednesday for U.S. and NATO forces to leave the country, saying that would pave the way to peacefully resolve the armed conflict.
The remarks by Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzada came in a message to mark the coming Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha in a bid to rally followers.
“The main obstacle in the way of peace is the occupation,” said the insurgent chief, referring to the presence of international forces in Afghanistan.
“Peaceful solution of the Afghan issue is the main pillar of the policy of the Islamic Emirate [the Taliban], should the occupation come to an end,” he added.
Akhundzada claimed the Taliban has established “administration over more than half of the country,” and the Islamist insurgency is determined to “liberate” from foreign “invaders” the rest of the Afghan territory.
He went on to claim that “life, property and honor” of people, including minorities, “are safe” in Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan.
These areas, he added, do not pose threat to the neighboring countries and the world at large.
“We believe in an inclusive and representative system. ... I would like to mention that we want a free, independent and progressive Afghanistan,” said Akhundzada in a bid to present a moderate face of the Taliban.
The radical religious group had imposed harsh Islamic rule in Afghanistan when it was in power from 1996 until 2001. Under the Taliban regime, Shi’ites and other minorities were persecuted, while women were barred from receiving education and outdoor activities.
The Taliban leader’s defiant message comes a week after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his new Afghan war strategy, extending and enhancing the U.S.-led foreign military mission in the war-torn nation.
The new policy, among other things, also will mean an increase in U.S. forces and foreign airpower available to Afghan security forces to help them reverse Taliban territorial gains.
The end goal of the Trump plan is to pressure the insurgents to push them to the negotiating table to find a political solution to the Afghan war.
The new U.S. policy comes as the Taliban already has intensified deadly attacks on Afghan security forces across the country and captured new districts in recent weeks.
The United Nations has warned that the protracted Afghan conflict has caused record levels of civilian casualties since the beginning of the year.
The latest civilian casualties occurred early Wednesday when a U.S. airstrike hit a suspected Taliban hideout in the eastern Logar province.
Residents in the Pul-e-Alam district told reporters the attack also killed more than 20 civilians, including women and children.
Afghan officials would not confirm the fatalities, although they said at least 10 civilians have been evacuated for medical aid to hospitals in Kabul.
A U.S. military statement said it is aware of the incident with potential civilian casualties, and an official invitation has been launched.
“United States Force — Afghanistan takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and is working with our Afghan partners to determine the facts surrounding this incident,” the statement added.
An American drone strike in the western Herat province on Monday killed at least 13 civilians and wounded nine others, according to Afghan officials. That attack also targeted a Taliban base, killing 16 insurgents, they added.