ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - The fugitive Taliban leader renewed his call Saturday for direct talks with the United States, dismissing as impractical and unacceptable "propositions" he asserted Washington has offered to promote a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan.
Malawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, in a message to his followers ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid, has for the first time offered some details of a recent “preliminary” meeting between Taliban and American officials.
Senior diplomat for the region, Alice Wells, led the U.S. delegation in the July 23 talks in Qatar, where the Taliban operates its so-called “Political Office." But neither side shared any detail until now.
The Taliban confirmed and described the discussions as “useful,” saying they were aimed at paving ground for future contacts between the two sides. But the insurgents shared no other details until now. Afghan government officials did not participate in the talks reportedly due to opposition from the Taliban.
Akhundzada explained the demand for direct peace talks with the U.S., saying the “ongoing war is the birth-child of American occupation” and only Washington can determine a deadline for the withdrawal of all American and NATO forces from Afghanistan.
“But in order to avoid responsibility for this war, the Americans propose options other than constructive negotiations that are neither rational nor practical; rather it is these same propositions that prolong this war for America, make it costlier and nudge it towards failure.”
Akhundzad did not elaborate on exactly what options U.S. officials put on the table. But Washington maintains it is ready to support and facilitate an intra-Afghan peace process under the leadership of the government in Kabul, cautioning that no solutions imposed from outside could help end the conflict.
The Taliban dismisses Afghan rulers as “stooges of America” and refuses to engage in any intra-Afghan talks until all foreign forces leave the country.
The Taliban chief asserted that Washington’s readiness for a “sincere, transparent and results-oriented” direct dialogue will be viewed by his group as “a sound step by America” and accepting the Afghan ground realities.
“But negotiations must be sincere and productive, free from any fraud and deception and must revolve around the core issue and not be used for propaganda or misleading the common thinking,” said Akhundzada.
The Taliban controls or hotly contests nearly half of the 407 Afghan districts. The insurgents have in recent weeks captured new territory and inflicted massive battlefield casualties on embattled Afghan security forces.
The Taliban last week came close to capturing the strategically important southeastern city of Ghazni before they were forced to retreat by Afghan forces with support from U.S. airpower after several days of deadly fighting.
The clashes reportedly killed 500 people, including Afghan forces, insurgents and civilians, beside causing massive destruction in the historic city.
In June, the Islamist insurgency for the first time in the 17-year war had ceased hostilities for three days, allowing Afghans to peacefully celebrate the Eid-ul-Fitr festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
The unprecedented temporary cease-fire coincided with the Afghan government’s unilateral cease-fire. The mutual gesture, though temporary, enabled Afghan soldiers and Taliban insurgents to interact, share Eid greetings and gifts, suggesting both sides were tired of the prolonged conflict.
But the Taliban swiftly dismissed those assertions and insisted its cease-fire was meant primarily to discredit "propaganda" the insurgency was not a unified force and did not have control over its field commanders.
Afghanistan and the rest of the Islamic world are preparing to celebrate another annual festival next week, known as Eid-ul-Adha.
There are hopes the warring sides may again observe a cease-fire to ease sufferings of ordinary Afghans, although Taliban chief Akhandzada in his Saturday’s Eid message did not hint at any such undertaking.
Afghan officials said Saturday President Ashraf Ghani was consulting his aides, civil society representatives and government peace negotiators on whether or not the government should halt counter-insurgency operations during the upcoming Eid festivities.
According to findings of a European Union-funded survey released Saturday, more than 90 percent of Afghans want the government and the Taliban to observe a permanent cease-fire.