President Ashraf Ghani. File Photo
Afghanistan's president on Sunday rejected foreign interference as the United States and the Taliban appear to be closing in on a peace deal without the Afghan government at the table.
President Ashraf Ghani spoke during the Muslim holiday Eid Al Adha and as US and Taliban negotiators continue their work in the Gulf nation of Qatar, where the insurgents have a political office.
Speaking after the Eid prayers, Ghani insisted that next month's presidential election is essential so that Afghanistan's leader will have a powerful mandate to decide the country's future after years of war. "The fate of Afghanistan will be decided here in this homeland," he said. "We don't want anyone to intervene in our affairs."
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is seeking a peace deal by Sept. 1, weeks before the vote. The two sides are expected to agree on the withdrawal of some 20,000 US and NATO troops in return for Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be a base for other extremist groups.
Few details have emerged, but Khalilzad and the lead Taliban negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, have been traveling in recent days to brief several countries involved in the process on the latest developments.
The Taliban spokesman in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, who has said a deal is expected at the end of this round of talks, on Sunday issued an Eid message expressing the hope that Afghanistan "will celebrate future Eids under the Islamic system, without occupation, under an environment of permanent peace and unity."
The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, dismissing it as a US puppet, and on Tuesday they declared the Sept. 28 election a "sham." They warned fellow Afghans to stay away from campaign rallies and the polls, saying such gatherings could be targeted. A day later the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that targeted security forces in Kabul. The attack killed 14 people and wounded 145, most of them civilians.
The Taliban control roughly half of Afghanistan and are at their strongest since the US-led invasion toppled their five-year-old government in 2001 after the group had harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. More than 2,400 US service personnel have died in Afghanistan since then.
President Donald Trump has publicly expressed his exasperation with America's continued involvement in Afghanistan and a desire to bring troops home.
President Ashraf Ghani hopes to showcase unity at the four-day meeting — known as Loya Jirga — that brings together politicians, tribal elders and others.
It was not immediately clear whether the US-Taliban talks will resume and when on ending nearly 18 years of fighting.
Ghani said the message of the five-day gathering was clear: “Afghans want peace” and offered a ceasefire, though he stressed it would not be unilateral. In the statement on Friday, the Taliban rejected a ceasefire, saying attacks will continue during Ramadan but said “fighters are very careful of civilians during any operation.”
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“We restructured several councils and issued several new appointments. We also discussed the government’s formation during the coming period and the most important new changes to keep pace with the priorities of the upcoming phase."
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