Mullah Omar hails Afghan peace talks

KABUL, July  15

Taliban leader Mullah Omar on Wednesday hailed as “legitimate” peace talks aimed at ending Afghanistan’s 13-year war, in his first comments on the nascent dialogue, easing concerns that it lacked the leadership’s backing.

Afghan officials sat down with Taliban cadres last week in Murree, a tourist town in the hills north of Islamabad, Pakistan, for their first face-to-face talks aimed at ending the bloody insurgency.

They agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing international praise, but many militant commanders openly questioned the legitimacy of the Taliban negotiators, exposing dangerous faultlines within the movement.

But in his annual message before Eid-ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, the reclusive leader backed negotiations, though he did not refer specifically to last week’s meeting.

“If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with enemies is not prohibited,” he said in a statement on the Taliban’s website. “Concurrently with armed jihad, political endeavours and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate Islamic principle.”

Several informal meetings have been held in recent months between Taliban representatives and Afghan officials and activists — including in Qatar, China and Norway — but last week’s meeting is seen as a significant step forward.

Afghan officials have not said when and where the next round of negotiations will take place, but they are widely expected to be conducted after Eid. Today’s statement marks the first clear indication of support for the process from Mullah Omar, about whom rumours of ill-health and even death regularly emerge.

In the absence of a clear lead from the top, some fighters have fallen back on the Taliban’s traditional position, that there can be no meaningful talks until all foreign forces leave Afghan soil. NATO ended its combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of December, but a smaller residual force remains in the country to train Afghan forces, due to leave altogether by the end of 2016.

But today’s statement is “different from previous Taliban statements”, said Kabul-based political analyst Ahmad Saeedi. He said that the Taliban are now speaking of holding talks and ensuring peace.

“There is no doubt a gradual change is developing in the Taliban’s attitude. It is now for the Afghan government to use this golden opportunity and engage them smartly.”

Talks are also dependent on another contributing factor — the emergence of a local branch of the Islamic Staten is another source of problem for the talks.

The Taliban warned IS last month against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some fighters, inspired by the group’s success, defecting to swear allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the invisible Mullah Omar.

The notoriously uncompromising Islamic State has shown no desire to negotiate and if the Taliban faultlines widen, there is a danger that the talks process could drive more of the Taliban hardline fighters into the arms of the middle eastern jihadist group.