KABUL, April 25, (Agencies): President Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan faced a terrorist enemy led by Taleban “slaves” in Pakistan in a sombre speech to parliament on Monday that nonetheless left the door open to resuming peace talks with parts of the Taleban.
Addressing a joint session of the two houses of parliament following a Taleban bomb blast that killed at least 64 people and wounded hundreds in Kabul on Tuesday, Ghani branded the insurgents criminals fighting the legitimate government. But he stopped short of declaring a state of national emergency, pledging war against radical groups like Islamic State, usually known in Afghanistan as DAESH, or the Haqqani network while suggesting there was still some hope of compromise with at least some Taleban.
“The enemies of Afghanistan are DAESH, al Qaeda, the murderous Haqqani network and some of the Taleban who enjoy shedding the blood of countrymen,” he said. He added that the doors of negotiation would remain open for those Taleban ready to stop bloodshed but added: “This opportunity will not be there forever.” He said Taleban leaders sheltering in the western Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta were “slaves and enemies of Afghanistan who shed the blood of their countrymen” and he called on the government in Islamabad to wipe them out.
He did not say whose slaves he thought the Taleban were, but his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, frequently accused Pakistan of harbouring the Taleban and supporting other militant groups such Haqqani network. Pakistan denies harbouring and aiding the Taleban but Ghani urged its government to “fulfil promises and carry out military operations against those whose bases are in Pakistan”.
The response from the Taleban, who have already rejected peace talks while Western forces remain in Afghanistan, was scornful. “The nation is not blind, people understand who the slave is and who works for the interest of others,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet. After a year that saw 11,000 civilian casualties and some 5,500 members of the security forces killed fighting the Taleban, the distinction may make little concrete difference to the fighting on the ground.
But two weeks after the Taleban announced the start of their annual spring offensive and then followed up with the biggest single attack seen in Kabul since 2011, there had been wide speculation among politicians in Kabul that Ghani could declare the stalled peace process formally dead
The Taleban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001, are seeking to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and reimpose Islamic rule. Ghani’s speech came at a time of growing apprehension in Kabul at the prospect of more intense fighting over the summer months. Over recent days, Afghan security forces have fought back Taleban attacks on Kunduz, the northern city that briefly fell to the insurgents last year.
Large parts of the southern province of Helmand are now in insurgent hands and there has been heavy fighting in several other provinces from Herat in the west to Kunar in the east. Ghani said security forces, fighting alone since the end of NATO’s main combat mission in 2014, were in a stronger position than last year and said a permanent minister of defence and head of the main intelligence agency would be appointed soon.
It cast a pall over international efforts in recent months to jumpstart Pakistan-brokered peace talks, which stalled last summer after the Taleban belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar. “I want to make it clear that we no longer expect Pakistan to bring the Taleban to the negotiating table,” Ghani said in a sombre address to both houses of the Afghan parliament. “But we expect them to launch a military operation against their sanctuaries and leadership based on their soil. If they can’t target them they should hand them over to our judiciary.” Afghanistan for years has accused longtime nemesis Pakistan of sponsoring the Taleban insurgency.
The Pakistani government recently admitted after years of official denial that the Taleban leadership enjoys safe haven inside the country. “There are no good or bad terrorists … Pakistan should act on them as a responsible government,” Ghani said. Ghani’s remarks reflect his frustration after he expended substantial political capital since coming to power in 2014 in courting Pakistan in the hope of pressuring the militants to the negotiating table. “Ghani is clearly running out of patience with Pakistan,” Kabul-based analyst Mia Gul Waseeq told AFP. “His risky and ambitious diplomatic outreach to Pakistan has failed to yield results”.
Ghani vowed a tough military response against the insurgents and pledged to enforce legal punishments, including executions of convicted militants. “The time for amnesty is over,” he said. “For the Taleban who are ready to end bloodshed, we have left the door open for talks. But the door will not be open forever”. Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid rebuffed Ghani’s remarks, saying the group would press on with their jihad against the US-backed government.