ASIA: Taliban Justifies Its Chief as ‘Legal’ Ruler of Afghanistan

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ISLAMABAD – The Taliban says its peace pact with the United States does not alter the status of the insurgent group’s supreme leader as the “lawful ruler” of Afghanistan, saying he is duty-bound by religion to establish an “Islamic government” after foreign “occupation” troops exit the country.

The latest Taliban pronouncement fuels the uncertainty plaguing the U.S.-Taliban deal signed a week ago in Qatar. It also comes a day after an American media outlet reported the U.S. government had intelligence that the radical insurgent group did not intend to abide by promises they made in the Feb. 29 peace agreement.

A Taliban statement Saturday insisted, while referring to its reclusive chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, that in the presence of a “legal Emir” there cannot be another ruler of Afghanistan.

“As this 19-year jihad (holy war) against the (foreign) occupation was waged under the command of a legal Emir, the termination of occupation agreement does not mean that his rule is absolved,” it said, referring to the deal with Washington.

A U.S.-led international military coalition invaded Afghanistan weeks after the deadly September 2001 terrorist strikes on America and ousted the Taliban from power for sheltering the al-Qaida leaders accused of plotting the carnage.

The landmark U.S.-Taliban agreement, signed in the presence of senior dignitaries representing dozens of nations, set the stage for Washington to close its longest war and bring home in the next 14 months roughly 13,000 troops from Afghanistan.

In exchange, the accord calls for the Taliban not to harbor terrorists and engage in a political reconciliation process with other Afghan factions, including civil society, to negotiate a sustainable national peace and power-sharing agreement. The proposed intra-Afghan negotiations are set to begin Tuesday.

But in the run-up to those talks up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners being held in Afghan jails and 1,000 members of Afghan forces in insurgent custody are to be freed.

The Taliban explained in its Saturday statement that the departure of international troops alone would not serve the purpose of the insurgency, saying it is also seeking to keep “corrupt (Afghan) elements that supported the (foreign) invaders” from becoming a part of the future government.

“Until the occupation is completely severed from its roots and an Islamic government formed, the mujahidin (insurgents) shall continue waging armed jihad and exerting efforts for the implementation of Islamic rule,” said the insurgent statement.

The Taliban rejects as American puppets the current and previous Afghan governments since the radical group was ousted from power by the U.S.-led invasion.

U. S. President Donald Trump, who appears determined to bring U.S. troops home, stopped short of backing concerns Friday that the Taliban could attempt to seize power in the absence of U.S. forces.

“It’s not supposed to happen that way, but it possibly will,” Trump said during a ceremony at the White House when asked if the Taliban will overrun the Afghan government after U.S. forces leave.

In a joint statement released Friday in connection with the peace deal, the United States and Russia reaffirmed that the international community does not recognize and “will not accept or support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The statement referred to the official name the Taliban used and continues use for its ousted government.

Afghanistan has seen a dramatic surge in violence this week, with Taliban fighters overrunning security outposts and killing dozens of Afghan forces. Additionally, an Islamic State-plotted attack Friday killed at least 32 people in the national capital, Kabul.

U.S. officials have played down the insurgent violence, vowing to uphold their part of the deal with the Taliban.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday, “We still have confidence the Taliban leadership is working to deliver on its commitments,” despite the ongoing violence. However, he acknowledged the “road ahead will be difficult.”

The renewed hostilities apparently have stemmed from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s announcement a day after the U.S.-Taliban deal that he had not given any commitment to Washington to free insurgent prisoners.

For its part, Taliban officials have been pressing Washington to facilitate the prisoner swap promised in the agreement to make sure intra-Afghan negotiations can begin as scheduled.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen announced Friday their negotiating team is ready with an agenda to engage with Afghan stakeholders, provided insurgent prisoners are released by Tuesday. Otherwise, he said, the responsibility for any delay in the proposed negotiations would rest with the other side.

On Saturday, Ghani told the legislative National Assembly that “our negotiating team will be ready by March 10.”  He addressed the prisoner swap issue again, though the president did not indicate whether Taliban prisoners would be set free by the time intra-Afghan talks open.

“I know the Taliban are demanding the release of 5,000 prisoners before the start of the talks. I as president do not have any wish to have Taliban prisoners, but their release should be based on a transparent mechanism so people could see it leads to a positive change in terms of a complete cease-fire.”

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