The Taliban co-founder joined the latest round of talks with the US, renewing hopes for the peace-keeping initiative, but there are key structural questions that linger in the backdrop, says the movement’s spokesman, Sohail Shaheen.
“We don’t want to destroy Afghan institutions, we want to reform them,” said Taliban representative Mohammad Sohail Shaheen, who has been part of negotiations with the US.
What kind of reforms, though?
“We believe in an Islamic system that ensures the rights of everyone, including education for girls and rights for women,” Shaheen told TRT World.
The Afghan Taliban, the insurgent group once accused of removing women from public life, says it has changed its ways.
“We gave our full backing to women’s rights in our negotiations with various stakeholders to the conflict,” Shaheen said.
After a 17-year conflict with the United States and Afghan forces, the Taliban is said to be in control of at least 65 percent of all districts in Afghanistan. The continued ascendance of the armed group has been matched by a growing weariness in Washington with regard to the war.
The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, removing the Taliban from major cities and giving control instead to US-backed forces. But over time the Taliban grew stronger. The armed group was able to a build a narrative around its fight with the US, portraying it as an Afghan struggle against a foreign occupation.
The Kabul government led by Ashraf Ghani has disputed this narrative, calling the Taliban an illegitimate force that aims to usurp power through the barrel of a gun.
On the sidelines of US-Taliban negotiations in Doha, I asked Shaheen if he saw the Afghan government as the legitimate government.
With a cold stare and visibly impassioned, Shaheen said: “If we see them as legitimate, then why are we fighting? This is a government of occupation that doesn’t represent the people. We represent the people. That is why we are talking to the Americans.”
The Afghan government is not part of the fifth round of talks as the Afghan Taliban refuses to recognise them as equal contenders in the negotiations.
“The US is as focused as we are to bring about a swift end to the conflict. And we are already talking to many Afghan stakeholders including including former President Hamid Karzai,” said Shaheen.
Russia’s envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told TRT World that peace would only be possible, if Afghans spoke to themselves.
“We don’t believe in Afghan settlement led by Russia or America, we believe on an Afghan solution led by Afghans,” Kabulov said.
He said there was a sense in Russia that direct negotiations might develop an “ice-breaking process which leads to peace in Afghanistan”.
Despite reservations, the United States has decided to directly speak to the Taliban.
"In Afghanistan, my administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban,” said US President Donald Trump.
“As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism,” he continued. “We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement -- but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace. And the other side would like to do the same thing, it's time."
While time is running out for the United States, the Taliban says it can afford to be patient in trying to achieve its objective.
The latest discussions between the US and senior Taliban commanders, led by Mullah Ghani Baradar, lasted for a week. Baradar's arrival at the Doha summit came as a surprise, renewing energy in the peace negotiations.
“Mullah Baradar’s involvement has made a huge difference,” Shaheen said. “He's not only the co-founder of the Taliban, he is also a spiritual force in the movement.”
Baradar was released in October after spending eight years in captivity in Pakistan.
In Doha, he sat across from the US Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as the fifth round of talks got underway.
Khalizad said that the peace talks were a “historic moment” for Afghanistan, because the US was negotiating with a “authoritative the Taliban delegation”, which included Baradar.
“For us, the US withdrawal is the top priority, and the Americans want guarantees that Afghan soil will not be used to attack the US or its allies,” Shaheen said.
India-Pakistan tensions threaten Doha talks
The ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region have threatened to derail the delicate balance that has so far been achieved in the US-Taliban talks, 2,500 hundred kilometres away in Doha.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi warned his Americans counterpart Mike Pompeo that Pakistan’s tensions with India could impact peace talks with the Taliban.
“If there is war between these two countries, the entire region will be affected,” Shaheen told TRT World. “If the US and Taliban can talk after 17 years of war, so can India and Pakistan.”
India, the Afghan government and the US have often cited Pakistan’s alleged patronage of the Taliban as a reason behind the group’s recent success.
Is the Taliban a tool of Pakistan?
When the question was put to him, Shaheen took a deep breath before responding: “These are lies and empty claims. Pakistan has its own priorities. We are not tools of Pakistan or anyone else.”