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Afghan army soldiers run for position during a firefight with Taliban gunmen in Kunduz city in 2015. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday reiterated a call for the Taliban to join peace talks following a spate of deadly insurgent attacks.

Afghan army soldiers run for position during a firefight with Taliban gunmen in Kunduz city in 2015. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday reiterated a call for the Taliban to join peace talks following a spate of deadly insurgent attacks. (Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged the Taliban on Wednesday to join peace talks aimed at ending the 16-year war, offering the guerrillas in return a cease-fire and the release of incarcerated insurgents.

Ghani, speaking at the launch of a U.S.-backed peace conference in the Afghan capital, said the group, which is not attending the event, would be recognized as a legitimate political party.

“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” he said.

He also called for a rapprochement with neighboring Pakistan, which is widely blamed for supporting the Taliban, a claim it denies.

“We will be ready to start talks with Pakistan and forget the bitter experiences of the past and start a new chapter,” Ghani said.

Wednesday’s meeting was the second of the so-called Kabul Process, which was launched in June to help foster peace negotiations between the government and insurgents.

NATO’s Resolute Support mission expressed optimism about the talks.

“It’s key to building on the gains we’ve made militarily,” said Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, a mission spokesman.

Kabul and Washington believe a negotiated settlement with the Taliban is the only way to end America’s longest war.

Representatives from about two dozen countries, including the U.S. and Pakistan, as well as the European Union, United Nations and NATO, attended the meeting, during which Afghan officials said they would present a plan for a better structured peace and security process.

The insurgents have refused to enter any discussions with the government on ending the conflict until international forces halt “their invasion” of the country.

“Experience has shown that there is never a positive outcome from these gatherings because no one ever addresses the invasion,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Stars and Stripes. “It’s just a conference to trick Afghans.”

The only significant previous peace talks with the Taliban broke down in 2015. However, the insurgents have recently expressed an apparent willingness to explore another dialogue.

On Monday, the group said in a statement that it would like to talk directly to American officials about “a peaceful solution to the Afghan quandary,” saying increasing violence was not “in the interest of anyone.”

In “a letter to the American people,” delivered on Feb. 14, the Taliban said again that they would prefer to solve the conflict through a peaceful dialogue. That statement came weeks after similar remarks that criticized President Donald Trump for apparently dismissing a peace process.

“We don’t want to talk to the Taliban,” Trump told reporters at the White House in late January. “We’re going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.”

White House officials later played down Trump’s remarks, insisting that the U.S. was still focused on getting the Taliban to the negotiating table, but said the Afghan government must lead any substantive discussions.

To help attain that goal, the U.S. military has significantly increased the number of airstrikes it’s been conducting and is also putting extra pressure on Pakistan to cut ties with the guerrillas.

So far, the measures appear to have had limited effect. The Taliban still control or contest about 44 percent of Afghanistan and continue to carry out high-profile attacks against civilians and the security forces.

Last month, the group detonated an ambulance packed with explosives in central Kabul, killing more than 100 people in one of the deadliest attacks of the war. A week before that, Taliban gunmen stormed the Intercontinental Hotel, where they battled security forces for more than 12 hours and killed at least 22 people, including four Americans.

Over the weekend, the insurgents stormed a military base in western Farah province — killing at least 20 Afghan troops — and carried out two suicide attacks in southern Helmand province that killed several soldiers and wounded civilians.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report. Twitter: @pwwellman

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Phillip is a reporter and photographer for Stars and Stripes, based in Kaiserslautern, Germany. From 2016 to 2021, he covered the war in Afghanistan from Stripes’ Kabul bureau. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics.
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