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Taliban leader Mullah Omar announced his backing for peace talks with the Afghan government on Wednesday, in what appears to be confirmation of recent news that senior leadership within the organization has authorized recent discussions.
The two sides sat down July 7 in Murree, on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, for their first ever officially acknowledged face-to-face meetings. Many in the international community welcomed the development as a first step towards ending more than 13 devastating years of conflict in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 when hardline Taliban militants were removed from power by a US-led invasion.
Further talks are set to be held in a different location at some point after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends July 19.
Before today it was unclear if the meetings had the blessing of senior Taliban leadership, as some commanders had redoubled their opposition to the Kabul government in recent months, and there have been internal differences on peace negotiations in the past.
But Mullah Omar said in his annual message for the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan that such discussions were not prohibited by religious teachings and that they would be coordinated through its "political office."
"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 said.
"We have established a 'political office' for political affairs, entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring and conducting all political activities."
The reclusive leader, who is frequently rumored to have been injured or killed, added later that any contact with foreign powers or other Afghan factions was designed to end the "occupation" and "establish an independent Islamic system in Afghanistan."
Most American and allied foreign forces pulled out of the country at the beginning of this year, passing most security duties to Afghan forces. Violence has been on the rise since then, and intensified with the beginning of the Taliban's spring offensive in April, which inflicted heavy casualties on security forces.
Government delegates involved in the recent negotiations told reporters at a Kabul press conference last week that the Taliban raised issues including the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, prisoner release, and removal of its members from UN sanction lists. They added that demands lists had been exchanged and key discussion topics were set for the next round.
Ceasefire discussions will also take place in the next session, but delegation member Haji Din Mohammad said that military operations against the Taliban will continue for now. The Taliban similarly did not agree to suspend attacks, and claimed responsibility for a number of recent bombings.
A halt in violence is by no means guaranteed to result from the talks. Mullah Omar's rhetoric with regards to the Kabul government has softened somewhat, but he still described Afghanistan as under occupation and the control of "invaders," relying on "mercenary forces trained by foreign intelligence agencies," and "naive youngsters in the disguise of Afghan security forces."
"It is therefore still obligatory upon us to continue our sacred jihad to liberate our beloved homeland and restore an Islamic system," he said.
Rival jihadist group the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is increasing its influence and presence in the country, and could be a further obstacle to peace. A number of Taliban commanders have defected and sworn allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi since it claimed in January that Afghanistan, along with Pakistan, was part of its "Khorosan" province. As the uncompromisingly extreme newcomers arrive, they could attract even more Taliban hardliners to IS.
Amid clashes, IS has captured significant territory from the Taliban in eastern Nangarhar province in recent weeks, and IS militants even beheaded captured Taliban fighters in June. The US has been targeting suspected IS militants in drone strikes, killing dozens, including regional leader Hafiz Saeed over the weekend.
It may in fact be worries over IS's expanding influence and recruitment that's driving the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government and attempt to consolidate their position under the threat of losing more influence and men. The Taliban's Deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor sent an open letter to Baghdadi last month, in which he said his group "doesn't want to see interference in its affairs," insisting that there was room for only "one flag, one leadership, and one command" in the fight to establish Islamic rule in Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar did not refer to IS specifically in Wednesday's statement, but seemingly addressed a part of his message to the group: "Since maintaining the unity of jihadi front in our country is a religious obligation, we have therefore directed all our Mujahidin to preserve their unity and forcefully prevent all those elements who attempt to create differences, damage this jihadi front or try to disperse the Mujahidin."
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