ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A top Taliban leader says their recent negotiations with the United States have achieved “great progress” and he is “very hopeful” the stage is set for ending the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy chief of the fundamentalist insurgent group and head of its “political office” in Qatar, made the remarks in a rare audio message the Taliban shared with journalists Thursday.
Baradar’s statement comes two days after American and Taliban officials wrapped up a marathon 16 days of talks in Doha, the capital of the Gulf country with both sides reporting reaching a preliminary draft agreement toward resolving the conflict.
The negotiations, Baradar noted, have laid “good ground” for future discussions and “paved the way” for finding a solution to the war. He insisted Taliban negotiators achieved the progress without budging on their principles and traditional stance rooted in Islamic Sharia law.
“The outcome I am expecting is that an Islamic system will reign supreme in the country, we gain our independence, foreign troops leave and our countrymen live like brothers,” Baradar asserted.
Known as co-founder of the Afghan Taliban, Baradar had been in captivity for nearly a decade in neighboring Pakistan until last October when he was released at Washington’s request to join and expedite the negotiations process being hosted by Qatar.
U.S. special reconciliation envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been leading the U.S. team in the peace dialogue that has been in progress since last fall.
Baradar stopped short of saying the Taliban are fighting to regain power when asked to respond to concerns among Afghans that the return of the fundamentalist group would prompt scholars, jihadi leaders and elders to flee the country or wage an armed resistance.
“Those who develop a good understanding with us and do not deceive or seek enmity with us, we will consider them like our brothers. They should not be worried or concerned because all Afghans should sit together and Taliban leaders will show mercy for everyone in an environment of mutual respect,” the deputy Taliban leader said.
The preliminary agreement reached in Doha on Tuesday focused on the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces in Afghanistan in return for Taliban assurances that Afghan soil would not be allowed to become a haven for international terrorists.
“When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counterterrorism measures is finalized, the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive cease-fire,” Khalilzad explained at the end of his talks with the Taliban Tuesday.
Critics saw the sequence of the process outlined in Khalilzad’s statement as a major concession to the Taliban who have long maintained not to engage in an intra-Afghan dialogue until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
There are concerns that in the absence of foreign forces if inter-Afghan talks breakdown the Taliban would try to take over Kabul militarily. The insurgent group already controls or contests nearly half the Afghan territory.