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In this image released by the FBI, Mullah Mohammed Omar is seen in a wanted poster. The reclusive Afghan Taliban leader has backed peace talks with the Kabul government, saying in a rare message distributed to media Wednesday, July 15, 2015 that the goal of these efforts is an "end to occupation" by foreign forces.
In this image released by the FBI, Mullah Mohammed Omar is seen in a wanted poster. The reclusive Afghan Taliban leader has backed peace talks with the Kabul government, saying in a rare message distributed to media Wednesday, July 15, 2015 that the goal of these efforts is an "end to occupation" by foreign forces. (FBI)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s reclusive leader appeared to put his stamp of approval on tentative peace talks between the insurgent group and the Afghan government in a statement released Wednesday.

Mullah Mohammed Omar, believed to be living in hiding in Pakistan, used an annual statement on the occasion of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr to give tacit approval to peace talks, even as he called on his forces to continue fighting until all foreign military forces have left Afghanistan.

Afghan government representatives met with a Taliban delegation in Pakistan earlier this month for talks overseen by U.S. and Chinese officials. The talks are scheduled to resume sometime after the Eid holiday, but throughout the nascent peace process there had been questions about whether the Taliban’s top leadership sanctioned the negotiations.

The meeting in Pakistan was the first formal encounter between the warring sides. It came after a series of unofficial meetings in recent months in Qatar, Norway and China between the Afghan government and civil society figures on the one side, and representatives of the guerrilla movement on the other.

Omar’s statement, posted by the group’s official website and Twitter accounts, seems to have removed that doubt, although he doesn’t specifically mention the talks.

Citing the example of the Prophet Muhammad, Omar argues that the obligation to continue waging jihad doesn’t preclude negotiations with “envoys of infidels.”

“Concurrently with armed Jihad, political endeavors and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate Islamic principle and an integral part of Prophetic politics,” he wrote. “If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited, but what is unlawful is to deviate from the lofty ideals of Islam and to violate religious decrees.”

The goals of the political outreach are to put an end to "the occupation and to establish an independent Islamic system in our country,” Omar said.

Since assuming office last September, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has repeatedly urged the insurgents to end the war and join the political process. But the Taliban have always refused, saying they will continue to fight until all foreign troops leave the country.

In his statement, the one-eyed Taliban chieftain, who has only rarely been heard from and has not been seen publicly since the U.S.-led operation toppled his regime in 2001, urged his forces to avoid civilian casualties and to work to win over, rather than kill, Afghans who support the government.

“As Allah Almighty has flung open the doors of victories to you, try your best to invite and guide the opponents to the right path and provide them with secured and honorable living conditions,” he wrote. “Instead of killing them, it is better to reform (guide) them as our community will inevitably suffer due to their widows and orphans.”

In Kabul, observers welcomed the statement as a positive sign.

“Finally the Taliban leader clearly confirms that they have been involved in the peace talks,” said Mohammad Hasan Haqyar, an Afghan political analyst. “It is very good news for Afghans, because it will help the peace process a lot. In his statement he gives hope to (the) Afghan nation, which is another sign that they are coming forward with a softer stance.”

Ismail Qasimyar, a leading member of the Afghan High Peace Council, which is involved in seeking a negotiated end to the decades of conflict, also said the statement was a “step in the right direction.”

But he said that Omar’s push for continued fighting somewhat undermines his softer statements.

“Talking of fighting and bloodshed doesn’t correspond with peace,” Qasimyar said. “It’s contradictory.”

What is needed, he argued, is a cease-fire between the various factions. In recent weeks Taliban fighters claimed responsibility for significant attacks around the country, including some aimed at the heart of Kabul. Likewise, government troops have continued offensives of their own, backed by foreign advisers and air power.

“Jihad is as obligatory today as it was in the beginning of foreign occupation because our Muslim homeland Afghanistan is still under occupation and both its land and airspace are controlled by the invaders,” Omar declared in his statement.

Qasimyar said that he was withholding judgment on the efficacy of the current peace process and he wanted to see whether the Taliban leadership could actually negotiate on behalf of their fractious factions.

“It can’t be done piecemeal,” Qasimyar said. “That would not lead to lasting peace."

Both the Taliban and Afghan government have been increasingly pressured by the rise of forces loyal to the Islamic State militant group, which is seen as competing with the Taliban and other local groups. The group has claimed that Mullah Omar was no longer alive, and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dismissed him as a “fool” and an “illiterate warlord.”

The arrival in Afghanistan of the radical Islamic State, which has occupied large portions of Syria and Iraq, may help push the Taliban and the government toward a resolution, Qasimyar argued, with both sides eager to keep the newcomers out. “Peace is the answer; war is not the solution,” he said. “I think that is something that all sides believe.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

smith.josh@stripes.com

Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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