ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - War-torn Afghanistan's official peace-negotiating panel offered Wednesday for the first time to let the Taliban open a representative office in Kabul or in a country of its own choice, for initiating a peace dialogue. The Taliban promptly rejected the offer, however, saying their rivals are "American occupation" forces who have installed the Kabul regime.
The foreign presence in Afghanistan is the "real problem," the insurgency's main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told VOA. "We do not need to open an office in Kabul because more than half of Afghanistan is under our control and the entire Afghanistan is our office," he said.
The Taliban has been unofficially running its so-called "Political Office" in Qatar since 2013. However, the Afghan government has refused to recognize the facility. Lately, President Ashraf Ghani has pushed authorities in the Gulf state to shut down the insurgent office in the face of intensified attacks by the Taliban across Afghanistan.
A senior member of the government-formed High Peace Council unveiled the new offer to reporters Wednesday in the Afghan capital. Mohammad Akram Khapalwak said they are ready to enter into the peace process without any preconditions and "through whatever mechanism" is proposed by the Taliban.
Khapalwak called on insurgent leaders residing "in Qatar, or in other countries, or in Pakistan" and facing difficult conditions in exile to respond positively to and come to the negotiating table for an "honorable" dialogue to end miseries the conflict is inflicting on Afghans.
"If they want to open an office, and in any other country, and require any facilities before starting peace talks, the Afghan government and the High Peace Council is ready to facilitate it," Khapalwak said.
The Taliban has made significant territorial advances since U.S.-led international combat forces left Afghanistan in 2014.
Commander of U.S. troops and NATO's Resolute Support mission in the country, General John Nicholson, said last week the Afghan government controls about 64 percent of the population, the Taliban controls about 12 percent of the population, and the other 24 percent live in contested areas.
The U.S. military has intensified airstrikes against Taliban insurgents and other militant groups, including Islamic State, in support of Afghan ground forces since President Donald Trump unveiled his new war strategy three months ago.
The Taliban has long wanted to engage in direct peace talks with Washington, saying the U.S. administration and not the Afghan government is the authority on deciding the fate of the conflict. A U.S.-led military coalition invaded and ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 to punish the group for sheltering al-Qaida leaders blamed for plotting the 9/11 attacks on U.S. cities.
U.N. officials have warned that Afghan civilians continue to bear the brunt of the escalation in the Afghan armed conflict. The number of civilian casualties this year has risen to record levels.