Islamabad: The Taliban say that they do not want to monopolize power, but they insist that Afghanistan will not be peaceful until a new negotiating government is established in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani steps down.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, who is also a member of the group’s negotiating team, laid out the insurgents’ stance on what should come next in a country on the precipice.
The Taliban have swiftly captured territory in recent weeks, seized strategic border crossings and are threatening a number of provincial capitals, as the last U.S. and NATO soldiers leave Afghanistan. This week, the top U.S. military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, told a Pentagon press conference that the Taliban have “strategic momentum,” and he did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover. But he said it is not inevitable. “I don’t think the end game is yet written,” he said.
Memories of the Taliban’s last time in power some 20 years ago, when they enforced a harsh brand of Islam that denied girls an education and barred women from work, have stoked fears of their return among many. Afghans who can afford it are applying by the thousands for visas to leave Afghanistan, fearing a violent descent into chaos. The U.S.-NATO withdrawal is more than 95% complete and due to be finished by Aug. 31.
Shaheen said the Taliban will lay down their weapons when a negotiated government acceptable to all sides in the conflict is installed in Kabul and Ghani’s government is gone.
“I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power because any governments who (sought) to monopolize power in Afghanistan in the past, were not successful governments,” said Shaheen, apparently including the Taliban’s own five-year rule in that assessment. “So we do not want to repeat that same formula.”
But he did not compromise on Ghani’s continued rule, calling him a war monger and accusing him of using his Tuesday speech on the Islamic holy day of Eid al-Adha to commit an offensive against the Taliban. Shaheen dismissed Ghani’s administration and renewed the widespread fraud allegations surrounding Ghani’s victory in the 2019 general election. After that vote, Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah both declared themselves presidents. After reaching a compromise agreement, Abdullah is now the second person in the government and leads the reconciliation committee.
Ghani often said that he will continue to serve until the new election can determine the next government. His critics-including those outside the Taliban-accused him of just trying to keep power, causing divisions among government supporters.
Last weekend, Abdullah led a high-level delegation to Doha, the capital of Qatar, for talks with Taliban leaders. Finally, he promised to hold more talks and pay more attention to the protection of civilians and infrastructure.
Shahin said that the meeting was a good start. However, he said that the government’s repeated requests for a ceasefire while Ghani continues to govern is tantamount to asking the Taliban to surrender. “They don’t want reconciliation, but they want to surrender,” he said.
He said that before any ceasefire, an agreement must be reached on a new government “acceptable to us and other Afghans.” Then “There will be no war”.
However, there have been repeated reports from captured districts of Taliban imposing harsh restrictions on women, even setting fire to schools. One gruesome video that emerged appeared to show Taliban killing captured commandos in northern Afghanistan.
Shaheen said some Taliban commanders had ignored the leadership’s orders against repressive and drastic behavior and that several have been put before a Taliban military tribunal and punished, though he did provide specifics. He contended the video was fake, a splicing of separate footage.
Shaheen said there are no plans to make a military push on Kabul and that the Taliban have so far “restrained” themselves from taking provincial capitals. But he warned they could, given the weapons and equipment they have acquired in newly captured districts. He contended that the majority of the Taliban’s battlefield successes came through negotiations, not fighting.
Shahin said that there is no plan to carry out a military attack on Kabul, and the Taliban have so far “restrained” themselves from occupying the provincial capital. But he warned that, given the weapons and equipment they acquired in the newly occupied areas, they could do so. He argued that most of the Taliban’s victory on the battlefield came from negotiation, not fighting.
“Those districts which have fallen to us and the military forces who have joined us … were through mediation of the people, through talks,” he said. “They (did not fall) through fighting … it would have been very hard for us to take 194 districts in just eight weeks.”
The Taliban control about half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers, and while they have yet to capture any of the 34 provincial capitals, they are pressuring about half of them, Milley said. In recent days, the U.S. has carried out airstrikes in support of beleaguered Afghan government troops in the southern city of Kandahar, around which the Taliban have been amassing, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday.
The rapid fall of districts and the seemingly disheartened response by Afghan government forces have prompted U.S.-allied warlords to resurrect militias with a violent history. For many Afghans weary of more than four decades of war, that raises fears of a repeat of the brutal civil war in the early 1990s in which those same warlords battled for power.
“You know, no one no one wants a civil war, including me,” said Shaheen. Shaheen also repeated Taliban promises aimed at reassuring Afghans who fear the group.
Washington has promised to relocate thousands of U.S. military interpreters. Shaheen said they had nothing to fear from the Taliban and denied threatening them. But, he added, if some want to take asylum in the West because Afghanistan’s economy is so poor, “that is up to them.”
He also denied that the Taliban have threatened journalists and Afghanistan’s nascent civil society, which has been targeted by dozens of killings over the past year. The Islamic State group has taken responsibility for some, but the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for most of the killings while the Taliban in turn accuse the Afghan government of carrying out the killings to defame them. Rarely has the government made arrests into the killings or revealed the findings of its investigations.
Shaheen said journalists, including those working for Western media outlets, have nothing to fear from a government that includes the Taliban. “We have not issued letters to journalists (threatening them), especially to those who are working for foreign media outlets. They can continue their work even in the future,” he said.