The Afghan Taliban is unlikely to call a ceasefire any time soon, the group’s leader has indicated, even though the “doors of dialogue” with the United States to end the 18-year-long war in the country remain open.
In his annual message on Saturday, ahead of next week’s Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada pledged to continue fighting until the group’s objectives were reached.
“No one should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of Jihad or forget our 40-year sacrifices before reaching our objectives,” he said in the message, adding that the Taliban aimed for “an end to the occupation and establishment of an Islamic system”.
“The doors of dialogue and negotiations have been kept open and at this very moment, the [Taliban] negotiation team … is engaged in negotiations with the American side,” Akhunzada said.
Taliban representatives have been talking with US diplomats for months about withdrawing more than 20,000 US and NATO coalition troops in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for attacks.
But so far there have been no signs of a ceasefire agreement and formal negotiations with President Ashraf Ghani‘s government, who Akhunzada accused of “trying to sabotage dialogue between the Islamic Emirate and Afghan political figures”.
The Taliban, overthrown by US-backed forces weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks, refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate.
Ghani had proposed a nationwide ceasefire at the start of Ramadan early last month, but the Taliban rejected the offer.
Last year, the Taliban observed a three-day ceasefire over Eid for the first time since 2001. Soldiers and civilians welcomed Taliban fighters and supporters into villages and towns. Afghan security forces were seen embracing the Taliban on the outskirts of the capital, and the fighters were allowed into Kabul if they temporarily turned in their weapons at the edge of the city.
Many Afghans, exhausted by decades of war and violence, had pinned their hopes on another truce this year.
In a sign of frustration with their country’s seemingly unending conflict, a group of protesters have restarted a peace march that last year saw them walking across Afghanistan and into the capital, Kabul.
Bismillah Watandost, a spokesman for the People’s Peace Movement, told AFP news agency on Saturday that about 30 people had started the walk late on Thursday, heading from Lashkar Gah to Musa Qala in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold.
“We will be marching 150 kilometres. Some of our friends have blisters on their feet from wearing old shoes,” Watandost said. “This is our first peace march during the holy month of Ramadan, all of us are fasting.”
He said the group aims to express to the Taliban the pain and suffering of Afghans.
“Even if we are intimidated with death threats, we won’t care about it,” Watandost said.
Afghan officials have been deeply suspicious of the so-called intra-Afghan dialogue, which they see as a means of reinforcing the Taliban and powerful regional politicians while sidelining the legitimate government.
The Eid message offered assurances that the Taliban did not seek a monopoly over power and would respect all the rights of male and female Afghans “under the shade of a sound Islamic government” and develop education, commerce, employment and welfare.
The Taliban says that conditions for peace “require an Afghanistan that is free from foreign occupation“.