Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has offered to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate political group, as part of a proposed process he said could lead to talks aimed at ending more than 16 years of war.
Ghani’s offer on Wednesday, made at the start of an international conference aimed at creating a platform for peace talks, adds to a series of signals from both the Western-backed government and the Taliban suggesting a greater willingness to consider dialogue.
Ghani proposed a ceasefire and prisoner release as part of a range of options, including new elections involving the armed group, and a constitutional review as part of a pact with the Taliban.
“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” Ghani said in opening remarks at the conference, attended by officials from about 25 countries involved in the so-called Kabul Process.
“The Taliban are expected to give input to the peace-making process, the goal of which is to draw the Taliban, as an organisation, to peace talks,” he said.
The comments represented a significant shift for Ghani, who, in the past, has regularly called the Taliban “terrorists” and “rebels”, although he has also offered to talk to parts of the movement that accepted peace.
The Taliban, fighting to return to power after its 2001 removal by US-led forces, has offered to begin talks with the US, but has, so far, refused direct discussions with Kabul. It was unclear whether the group would be prepared to shift its stance, despite growing international pressure.
“I think that what they are saying is that the door is still open. They have shown a softness in their stand,” said political analyst Habib Wadark.
“Not just the Taliban, but the Afghan government and its international counterparts, and I think it is a perfect time not for a peace deal to be struck at this stage but probably a temporary ceasefire, which can then pave the path of a sustainable peace in the long term,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ghani, who recently helped launch the latest stage of a major, regional gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, said the momentum for peace was building from neighbouring countries that increasingly saw the necessity of a stable Afghanistan.
“The Taliban show awareness of these contextual shifts and seem to be engaged in a debate on the implications of acts of violence for their future,” he said.
Ghani said a framework for peace negotiations should be created with the Taliban recognised as a legitimate group, with their own political office to handle negotiations in Kabul or another agreed location.
Taliban officials have acknowledged they have faced pressure from friendly countries to accept talks, and said their recent offers to talk to the US reflected concern that they could be seen to be standing in the way of peace.
Ghani said the process would be accompanied by coordinated diplomatic support, including a global effort to persuade neighbouring Pakistan, which Kabul has regularly accused of aiding the Taliban, of the advantages of a stable Afghanistan.
He renewed an offer of talks with Pakistan, which rejects the accusations and points to the thousands of its citizens who have been killed by armed groups over the years.
In return for Ghani’s offer, the Taliban would have to recognise the Afghan government and respect the rule of law, he said.
In addition, Taliban prisoners could be released and their names removed from international blacklists, while security arrangements could be made for the Taliban members agreeing to join a process of reconciliation. Former fighters and refugees could be reintegrated and provided with jobs.
The US last year stepped up its military assistance to Afghanistan, notably through a sharp increase in air attacks, with the aim of breaking a stalemate with the fighters and forcing them to the negotiating table.
While the US military says the strategy has hit the Taliban hard, the group still controls or contests much of the country and continues to inflict severe casualties on Afghan forces.
The Taliban also claimed responsibility for two major attacks in Kabul last month that killed or wounded hundreds of civilians.