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Taliban publish letter calling on US to start Afghan peace talks

Taliban fighters in Farah province, Afghanistan
Taliban fighters in Farah province, Afghanistan. The letter cites a US watchdog in claiming Taliban control is rising in the country. Photograph: Uncredited/AP

In an unexpected overture at a time of increasing bloodshed in Afghanistan, the Taliban have published an open letter expressing a desire for peace talks and calling on the “American people” and “peace-loving congressmen” to pressurise the Donald Trump administration into negotiations.

The letter, released by the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, comes amid deteriorating conditions for US and Afghan coalition forces on the battlefield and after a month in which two Taliban assaults on Kabul killed 150 civilians.

The Trump administration has sent mixed messages about its readiness to have contact with the Taliban, but it has insisted that all substantive negotiations would have to be led by the Afghan government.

For its part, the Taliban refuses to talk to the Afghan government without first discussing the withdrawal of foreign troops with its powerful ally.

“If the policy of using force is continued for another one hundred years,” the letter reads, “the outcome will be the same ... as you have observed over the last six months since the initiation of Trump’s new strategy.”

The 2,800-word letter favours US and UN-produced statistics over apocalyptic threats. In an attempt to persuade the US public that the war is unwinnable it cites the “3,546 American and foreign soldiers” killed, an “87% rise” in heroin production in 2017, and the assessment from the US watchdog the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that Taliban control on the ground has increased significantly.

In what appears to be a nod to rising support for the Taliban from Russia and Iran, the statement refers to the “international community” now “backing our justified resistance”.

The letter also highlights the “tens of billions of dollars” spent in Afghanistan “collected from you in tax and revenue” but then given “to thieves and murderers”, it claims.

Such arguments have an ear in Washington. On Monday, the Taliban invited the libertarian senator Rand Paul for talks at their office in Qatar, after he claimed the US’s projected $45bn (£32.5bn) spend in Afghanistan over 2018 amounted to money “thrown down a hatch”.

This invitation stands a better chance of influencing US policy than the “generalised” open letter, according to Thomas Ruttig, of the thinktank the Afghan Analysts Network.

A spokesperson for the US state department said the Taliban was welcome to join peace talks, but added that the onus was now on the insurgents to end their campaign of violence.

“The Taliban statement alone does not show willingness to engage in peace talks. The Taliban’s recent horrific terror attacks in Kabul speak louder than these words,” the spokesperson said. “The Afghan government can only negotiate to end the war if the Taliban are ready. The recent attacks show this is not the case.”

There are conflicting views within the US administration, however. The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has said the US is open to talks with “moderate voices” in the Taliban, which could form part of the Kabul government.

Even after Trump’s comments, Tillerson’s deputy, John Sullivan, said US policy remained the pursuit of Afghan-led talks with the Taliban, and suggested Trump’s remarks referred to a refusal to talk to hardliners while attacks were under way. Talks with the Taliban, Sullivan said this month, would “happen over time when conditions warrant and it’s appropriate”.

Even if ignored by policymakers, the Taliban’s public plea showcases an effective evolution in their propaganda, according to a western official unauthorised to speak publicly. “I hate to say it,” said the official, “but they have started to hit where it hurts simply by telling the truth.”

Michael Semple, a former UN and EU negotiator with the Taliban, suggested the letter said more about the internal politics of the insurgency, between moderates based in Qatar and more hardline elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The Taliban have refused talks with the government of Afghanistan. To legitimise that position, they are putting it out that they are open to talks with the US,” said Semple, who is now a professor at Queen’s University Belfast. “The letter is not conveying a serious proposal, but is an attempt to provide cover for a hardline position (with which I suspect most Taliban in Qatar disagree).”

Simon Gass, a former Nato senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said: “Although the Taliban have had success on the ground, it has come at a big price in terms of losses. Morale is said by experts not to be great, particularly given the faction fighting which followed the deaths of [Taliban leaders] Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour.

“The encroachment of Isis is a problem for the Taliban – they may be feeling the heat. The US intention to raise force levels will also discourage them. So this could be a significant move. But it could also be a tactic designed to disarm those in the US who are against any troop increase and to divide the Afghan and US governments.”

This article titled "Taliban publish letter calling on US to start Afghan peace talks" was written by Memphis Barker in Islamabad and Julian Borger in Washington, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 14 February 2018 04.57pm

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