ISLAMABAD - The leader of the Taliban said Wednesday that implementation of his group’s “historic” agreement with the United States was key to ending the war in Afghanistan and paving the way for U.S. troops to exit the country.
"The Islamic Emirate [the Taliban] is committed to the agreement signed with America and urges the other side to honor its own commitments and to not allow this critical opportunity to go to waste,” said Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada.
The reclusive Taliban chief made the remarks in a message released in connection with the coming annual festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
“Let us move forward with the implementation phase so that a path is paved for the withdrawal of your [U.S.] forces and for peace and security to take hold in Afghanistan and the region,” Akhundzada said.
His message coincided with a fresh trip to the region by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated and signed the deal with the Taliban on February 29.
The American envoy visited Qatar for talks with insurgent leaders based there prior to meeting Wednesday in Kabul with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
A pre-visit U.S. announcement said that during Khalilzad's trip, his talks would focus on implementation of the agreement and press Afghan parties to the conflict to open internal negotiations as soon as possible.
"The United States-Taliban agreement opens a historic opportunity for moving forward on peace,” Khalilzad told reporters before leaving Washington for the visit.
The increase in summer fighting between Afghan security forces and the Taliban has threatened to derail the landmark deal, which requires U.S. and coalition forces to leave Afghanistan by mid-July 2021, ending America’s longest overseas military intervention.
“I urge American officials to not afford anyone the opportunity to obstruct, delay and ultimately derail this internationally recognized bilateral agreement between us and you,” said Taliban chief Akhundzada.
The Afghan government and the Taliban have blamed each other for fueling recent battlefield hostilities. Islamic State terrorists, meanwhile, also have conducted deadly attacks, mostly targeting Afghan civilians.
The United Nations said in a report issued this week that the renewed violence had killed and injured hundreds of Afghan civilians over the past six weeks.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again underlined the need for reducing the violence and starting intra-Afghan talks to negotiate an agreement on the political future of the country.
“We need all sides, including the Taliban, to do their part to get into talks. We need violence reduced. We’re working hard to meet the critical objective of getting peace and reconciliation inside of Afghanistan,” the chief American diplomat told reporters in Washington.
Pompeo also welcomed this week’s political power-sharing agreement between Ghani and his chief election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, urging both men to speed up the government’s entry into negotiations with the Taliban.
Ghani and Abdullah both claimed to have won the disputed September presidential election, triggering months of political and governance crisis in Afghanistan.
While Ghani has retained the office of the president, the deal gives Abdullah the de facto No. 2 position and power to recommend candidates for 50 percent of the Cabinet.
Abdullah will also lead the peace process and future negotiations with the Taliban as head of a new High Council of National Reconciliation.
Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, the proposed intra-Afghan dialogue was due to begin in early March. The crucial talks have been delayed because of an extremely slow-moving prisoner swap between the Taliban and Kabul.
The Afghan government has to release up to 5,000 insurgent prisoners in return for 1,000 detainees held by the Taliban. So far, only 1,000 prisoners have been set free from Afghan jails while the Taliban have released fewer than 300 detainees.