Chicago Tribune (Sunday)

Taliban: Afghan president must go

Group says peace will come after new Kabul government

- By Kathy Gannon

ISLAMABAD — The Taliban say they don’t want to monopolize power, but they insist there won’t be peace in Afghanista­n until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed.

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 — advances that come as the last U.S. and NATO soldiers leave Afghanista­n.

Last 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 was also uncompromi­sing on the continued rule of Ghani, calling him a warmonger and accusing him of using his Tuesday speech on the Islamic holy day of Eid-al-Adha to promise an offensive against the Taliban.

Shaheen dismissed Ghani’s right to govern, resurrecti­ng allegation­s of widespread fraud that surrounded Ghani’s 2019 election win. After that vote, both Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president. After a compromise deal, Abdullah is now No. 2 in the government and heads the reconcilia­tion council.

Asked about the Taliban demand that Ghani be removed as a condition of a peace agreement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday affirmed President Joe Biden’s support for the Afghan president.

In a phone call Friday, Biden told Ghani that he’s included $3.3 billion for Afghan security forces in his fiscal year 2022 budget request, according to the White House.

The military aid includes $1 billion to support the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, $1 billion for fuel, ammunition and spare parts, and $700 million to pay salaries for Afghan soldiers.

The White House said in a statement that the two leaders agreed that the Taliban’s military offensive “is in direct contradict­ion to the movement’s claim to support a negotiated settlement of the conflict.”

Ghani has often said he will remain in office until new elections can determine the next government. His critics — including ones outside the Taliban — accuse him of seeking only to keep power, causing splits among government supporters.

Recently, Abdullah headed a high-level delegation to the Qatari capital of Doha for talks with Taliban leaders. It ended with promises of more talks, as well as greater attention to the protection of civilians and infrastruc­ture.

Shaheen called the talks a good beginning. But he said the government’s repeated demands for a cease-fire while Ghani stayed in power were tantamount to demanding a Taliban surrender.

Before any cease-fire, there must be an agreement on a new government “acceptable to us and to other Afghans,” he said. Then “there will be no war.”

Shaheen said under this new government, women will be allowed to work, go to school, and participat­e in politics, but will have to wear a hijab, or headscarf. He said women won’t be required to have a male relative with them to leave their home, and that Taliban commanders in newly occupied districts have orders that universiti­es, schools and markets operate as before, including with the participat­ion of women and girls.

However, there have been repeated reports from captured districts of Taliban imposing harsh restrictio­ns on women, even setting fire to schools.

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 they have acquired in newly captured districts. He contended that the majority of the Taliban’s battlefiel­d successes came through negotiatio­ns, not fighting.

 ?? TARIQ ACHKZAI/AP ?? Taliban supporters carry their signature white flags July 14 after the Taliban said they seized the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak across from Chaman, Pakistan. The Taliban want President Ashraf Ghani removed from office.
TARIQ ACHKZAI/AP Taliban supporters carry their signature white flags July 14 after the Taliban said they seized the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak across from Chaman, Pakistan. The Taliban want President Ashraf Ghani removed from office.

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