ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A top Afghan official leading peacemaking efforts with the Taliban said Wednesday that he would be open to discussing formation of an interim government with the Islamist insurgent group when the two sides begin long-awaited peace negotiations.
Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, said the proposed dialogue has created a rare opportunity and both sides must be ready to make compromises to help end decades of hostilities.
“Let’s get to the negotiating table. Let’s talk there,” Abdullah told an online discussion arranged by the U.S Institute of Peace when asked whether the Afghan government would accept a Taliban proposal for an interim government made up of officials from both sides.
“We have to be flexible in our thoughts. Nothing should derail us from getting to a durable, lasting and acceptable peace for all Afghans, including [the] Taliban,” Abdullah said.
His remarks, however, ran contrary to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent statement in which he rejected the possibility of stepping down from his office in favor of an interim government in the event of a potential peace deal with the Taliban.
Earlier this month, Ghani told a seminar organized by Washington’s Atlantic Council that “any discussion of an interim government is premature. I serve at the will of the Afghan people, not at the will of the Taliban.”
There was no immediate reaction available from Ghani’s office, though Abdullah insisted he was consulting the president in moving the peace process forward.
The Taliban have long maintained they are fighting for establishing an Islamic system of governance in Afghanistan, denouncing the current political setup as an extension of the country’s “illegal occupation” by the United States.
Afghan and Taliban negotiators have agreed to meet in Doha, Qatar, where the insurgent group maintains its political office, but a date has not been set.
Abdullah explained in his speech that the Taliban were determined not to begin peace negotiations until the government released 5,000 insurgent prisoners. He noted that 75 percent of prisoners had been set free, saying “we are very close” to releasing the rest.
In exchange, the Taliban have agreed to free 1,000 Afghan security personnel from their custody, with about 600 of them already released.
The prisoner swap is stipulated in a landmark agreement the U.S. signed with the Taliban in February, which requires all American and coalition troops to leave Afghanistan by July 2021 as demanded by the insurgents.
In return, the Islamist Taliban have committed to not allow terrorists to use Afghan soil for international attacks. They have also pledged to engage in talks with Afghans representing all segments of the society to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and power-sharing arrangement in postwar Afghanistan.
Abdullah also voiced concerns over intensifying Taliban battlefield attacks that have killed hundreds of Afghan security forces in recent weeks. “That puts our seriousness in pursuit of the peace process to the test.”
He warned the violence could hurt the peace process and said those concerns have been conveyed to the Taliban.
“Where does it get us? If the current level of violence continues … and then the people leave Kabul [for Doha] in order to start talks [with the Taliban], but with the news of hundreds of people being killed recently, including civilians, that will not be a good environment for the start of negotiations,” Abdullah said.
Taliban officials deny government claims about the number of insurgent attacks and casualties being inflicted on Afghan forces as baseless and an attempt to create hurdles in the way to intra-Afghan talks. They assert insurgents take “defensive action” only when they come under attack from Afghan forces.
Abdullah was appointed to lead the peace process with the Taliban last month when he ended his bitter political feud with Ghani, stemming from last September’s controversy-marred Afghan presidential election.
Both Afghan rival leaders had claimed victories and held competing inauguration ceremonies in March before striking a power-sharing deal last month under U.S.-led international pressure.