DOHA, Qatar — In a sign that the Taliban see a peace deal with the United States as imminent, one of their top leaders released a rare audio message on Thursday seeking to ease the concerns of the insurgency’s own fighters — and those of Afghans who fear that an agreement could let the Taliban return to power and roll back human rights.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a deputy Taliban leader who was recently freed from a Pakistani cell to lead the talks with the Americans in Qatar, said in the message that he was “very hopeful” that the discussions that ended Tuesday could help end a war that has dragged on for 18 years.
“We had the kind of talks that have created the opportunity to resolve things and find a solution in the future,” Mullah Baradar said.
His message was a window into the internal politics of the Taliban, who are stuck in a deadly stalemate with the Afghan security forces, despite essentially controlling more Afghan territory than at any time since 2001, when the American invasion ousted them from political power.
But he provided few details of guarantees on human rights, or whether the Taliban would accept anything less than the return of their oppressive Islamic Emirate that was toppled. His call for his fighters to show humility was also unlikely to quell public concerns considering the Taliban’s history. In their consolidation of power in the 1990s, they resorted to massacres and scorched-earth tactics as they wiped out pockets of resistance.
As their talks with the Americans stretched into 16 days behind closed doors, concerns mounted in Afghanistan over what kind of a deal the Trump administration was pushing for. Some Afghans fear that the United States might lose its leverage by accepting a timeline for withdrawing its troops before the Taliban agree to meet with the Afghan government to discuss the country’s political future — which, so far, they have refused to do.
Even if the Taliban engage with the government at a later stage, they could be riding the momentum of what they would see as a battlefield victory against the American-led coalition. And the Afghan government would be in a vulnerable position if its international partners had already agreed to leave.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday in Washington, Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan president’s national security adviser, sharply criticized American diplomats for leaving the Afghan government in the dark during the peace negotiations.
“We don’t have the kind of transparency we should have,” he said, adding that after recent talks the American negotiators delivered only “bits and pieces” of what transpired during the discussions.
Washington is “increasing the legitimacy of the Taliban,” Mr. Mohib said. “And decreasing the legitimacy of the Afghan government.”
Such concerns were underscored by a recent television interview with the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who said, with what many considered a triumphalist tone, that the insurgents would see themselves as returning “victorious.”
Mullah Baradar tried to ease some of those fears in his message.
“Those who come to an understanding with us, and they don’t cheat us or seek enmity, we will treat them like our brothers,” he said. “I am hopeful that all issues will be resolved, the countrymen should not be concerned.”
He added: “Nobody has any thoughts of prejudice. It is our Islamic country, and all Afghans should sit together, show respect for each other, and we should have mercy on each other.”
Some Taliban fighters and field commanders have a very different concern, fueled by news reports and rumors that their political leaders — many of whom have spent the war away from the battlefield — could compromise on some of their fundamental demands.
Many Taliban field commanders, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering their political leaders, said that while they trusted them, they would accept nothing less than a full withdrawal of foreign forces — and soon. Their concerns seem fueled by reports that the United States wants to leave a residual force in Afghanistan for counterterrorism purposes.
“In all these meetings, in all these days, I can’t think of a point or a thought that may have gone against our principles,” Mullah Baradar said, seemingly responding to those fears.
As the United States has reduced its troop presence in the past few years, the war’s toll — civilian casualties aside — has fallen on the Afghan forces and the Taliban. That is reflected in the casualty numbers: While a total of more than 100,000 Afghan forces and Taliban are believed to have been killed, the number of coalition deaths stands at a little more than 3,500.
“We are making staggering sacrifices in human life to defend not only our country, but also to hold at bay those forces which threaten global security,” Mr. Mohib, the Afghan national security adviser, said.
In a sign of the government’s fragility, heavy fighting broke out on Thursday in Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan, between Afghan special forces sent from Kabul and militiamen and police officers loyal to a former governor, Atta Mohammed Noor. Mr. Noor had threatened violent resistance after President Ashraf Ghani’s government named a new provincial police chief, which Mr. Noor said violated a promise that he would have influence over key appointments.
“Afghan security forces are tasked with protecting the Afghan people, not fighting each other over political disputes,” John Bass, a seemingly frustrated U.S. ambassador to Kabul, tweeted in a call for de-esecalation.
The possibility that the United States might agree to withdraw troops from Afghanistan just as the war has intensified, and before a comprehensive political settlement is finalized, has raised fears that the war could devolve into revenge-taking and a fight over power once the Americans are gone.
Mullah Baradar called on his fighters to show humility, though he also reinforced the idea that the Taliban already see themselves as triumphant. Now that God has “given them victory in political and military fields,” he said, they “shouldn’t resort to ego and pride.”
“They should show humility, and show gratefulness to God,” he said. “Instead of a desire for power, they should think about service to Islam and the people.”
He added, “My advice to them, my request to them, is that they not be arrogant and grandiose, and they should act in a way with the people as a father would do with their children — with kindness.”
Orignially published in NYT.