Afghanistan offers amnesty to Taliban to end 16-year war

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Peace offer reasons that the Afghan war will not be settled militarily and that the growing cost in Afghan lives is unsustainable

Shashank Bengali and Sultan Faizy, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday extended an olive branch to the Taliban, offering amnesty for reported war crimes and recognition of the insurgent group as a political party in a bid to end the 16-year conflict.

It was Afghanistan’s most significant peace overture to the large, fractious militant organization that currently controls more territory than at any time since the 2001 U.S.-led military invasion, but whose political aims have become unclear as the war has devolved into a bloody stalemate and its top leaders have been killed.

The Taliban surprised many observers two weeks ago when the group wrote in an open letter that it wanted “a peaceful resolution” to the conflict. The group did not immediately respond to Ghani’s proposal, delivered at the start of a multinational conference to promote peace talks.

Ghani called for a cease-fire and prisoner release, and offered insurgents who renounced violence and recognized the Afghan government a place in the country’s political institutions.

“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” Ghani told representatives of about two dozen countries to the conference, known as the Kabul Process.

The terms of the offer resembled those of a deal Ghani struck two years ago with the once powerful insurgent group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces were accused of causing thousands of civilian deaths during the 1990s but now appears alongside Ghani at official ceremonies.

“It’s a very constructive offer with a lot of concessions to the Taliban, but we don’t know if they will accept this overture,” said Haroun Mir, an independent political analyst in Kabul.

The Taliban have lacked a strong leader since 2015, when the group announced the long rumored death of its longtime head, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The following year, Omar’s successor, Mullah Akthar Muhammad Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Under Mansour’s successor, a religious scholar named Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, Taliban insurgents have all but abandoned their political pretenses and escalated violence against civilian and security targets. According to a recent Pentagon inspector general’s report, only 64 percent of the Afghan population lived in areas controlled by the Afghan government, down from 80 percent in September 2013.

After the most recent major attack, in late January, when a Taliban suicide bomber detonated an ambulance packed with explosives and killed more than 100 people near a Kabul hospital, Ghani said Afghanistan would never reconcile with the perpetrators of such attacks. President Trump also dismissed the idea, saying, “I don’t think we’re prepared to talk right now.”

But Ghani’s peace overture reflects an understanding — shared not only by the U.S. and its allies but also the Taliban — that the Afghan war will not be settled militarily and that the growing cost in Afghan lives is unsustainable.

This week, the Taliban followed up their open letter with a proposal to begin direct talks with the United States, another apparent change in stance by a group that has long said it would not negotiate as long as foreign troops were in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration rejected the Taliban proposal, with State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying: “Any peace talks with Afghanistan have to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.”

President Donald Trump has raised the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan from 11,000 to 15,000 troops at the urging of Pentagon officials who argue the increased firepower will force the insurgents to come to the negotiating table.

Trump has also raised pressure on Pakistan — the neighboring country that Afghanistan accuses of sheltering and supporting the Taliban — by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. security assistance. Pakistani officials have rejected accusations of being soft on terrorism and said they can do without the U.S. support.

“We are not sure if the Pakistanis will bend to the pressure from the U.S.,” Mir said. “They have been able to withstand that pressure thus far because they have their allies in the region, including China and Iran.”

Ghani’s peace effort is also dogged by problems in his own government, an unwieldy coalition that includes former warlords and ethnic militia leaders who have challenged his authority. Atta Mohammad Noor, the strongman governor of a northern state, for more than two months has defied Ghani’s orders to leave office.

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