Taliban: 'no peace in Afghanistan until new government is formed'

Insurgents' spokesman says group does not want to repeat failures of previous regimes

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The Taliban do not want to monopolise power in Afghanistan but will not stop fighting until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed, a spokesman for the group said.

"I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power because any governments who [sought] to monopolise power in Afghanistan in the past, were not successful governments," Suhail Shaheen said.

"So we do not want to repeat that same formula."

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr Shaheen, who is also a member of the Taliban team involved in peace talks with Afghan officials, laid out the insurgents' stance on what should come next in a country on the precipice as US and Nato soldiers leave.

The Taliban have made swift gains in recent weeks, seizing strategic border crossings, and are threatening a number of provincial capitals. The government on Saturday imposed night curfews in 31 provinces "to curb violence and limit the Taliban movement", the interior ministry said.

The top US military officer, Gen Mark Milley, said this week that the Taliban had "strategic momentum" and that he did not rule out a complete takeover by the insurgents.

The US-Nato withdrawal is more than 95 per cent complete and expected to be finished by August 31, nearly two decades after the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban regime.

Mr Shaheen said the Taliban would lay down their weapons once there was an agreement on a new government "acceptable to us and to other Afghans" and Mr Ghani's government was gone.

Then "there will be no war", he said

He said the government's repeated demands for a ceasefire while Mr Ghani stayed in power were tantamount to demanding a Taliban surrender.

"They don't want reconciliation, but they want surrendering," he said.

Memories of the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001, when they enforced a harsh brand of Islam that denied girls an education and barred women from work, have stoked fears among many Afghans of the group's return. Those who can afford it are applying by the thousands for visas to leave the country, fearing a violent descent into chaos.

Mr Shaheen said that under the new government, women would be allowed to work, go to school and participate in politics, but will have to wear the hijab, or headscarf.

He said women would not be required to have a male relative with them to leave their home, and that Taliban commanders in newly occupied districts have orders that universities, schools and markets operate as before, including with the participation of women and girls.

But there have been repeated reports from captured districts of the Taliban imposing harsh restrictions on women, even setting fire to schools.

Mr Shaheen said there were no plans to make a military push on Kabul and that the Taliban had so far restrained themselves from taking provincial capitals.

But he said that they could, given the weapons and equipment they have acquired in newly captured districts.

He claimed that the majority of the Taliban's territorial successes came through negotiations, not fighting.

"Those districts which have fallen to us and the military forces who have joined us ... were through mediation with the people, through talks," he said. "They [did not fall] through fighting ... it would have been very hard for us to take 194 districts in just eight weeks."

The Taliban control about half of Afghanistan's 419 district centres, and while they have yet to capture any of the 34 provincial capitals, they are pressuring about half of them, Gen Milley said.

In recent days, the US has carried out air strikes in support of beleaguered Afghan government troops in the southern city of Kandahar, around which the Taliban are massing, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Thursday.

The rapid fall of districts and the seemingly disheartened response by Afghan government forces is prompting US-allied warlords to resurrect militias with a violent history.

For many Afghans weary of more than four decades of war, that raises fears of a repeat of the civil war in the early 1990s in which those same warlords battled for power.

"No one wants a civil war, including me," Mr Shaheen said.

Government demands renewed US commitment

Mr Shaheen's comments were made as the Afghan government requested ongoing US logistical and maintenance support for its air force, which has become critical for supporting outposts of government control, including Kandahar in the south. The city is almost cut off by Taliban ground forces.

In virtual talks this week with the US Congress, an Afghan delegation said it appealed for quick action on aircraft maintenance and munitions supplies as President Joe Biden prepares to end America's longest-ever war by the end of next month.

Mr Biden raised the issue during a phone conversation with his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani on Friday, the White House said in a statement.

The US president affirmed his country's continued military support of Kabul, with spending for Afghanistan prioritised in the 2022 defense budget, currently under negotiation in Congress.

"The security situation is really getting terrible," said senior Afghan MP Haji Ajmal Rahmani, referring to a Taliban offensive during the virtual talks.

Mr Rahmani said one-third of the 150-strong fleet was already grounded due to maintenance issues.

He said the Afghans had also run out of laser-guided munitions, as the United States and Nato allies had handled 80 to 90 per cent of the armaments and did not leave a supply during hasty pullouts of air assets.

Laser-guided munitions are critical to pinpointing targets and minimising civilian casualties, he said.

"The feedback was that it will take some more time because they have to make the orders and it will take time to produce and ship to Afghanistan," he told a roundtable of the State Department Correspondents' Association.

"They are talking of around one year, more or less, until it will reach Afghanistan. This is something very much needed at this critical time."

A statement from the White House said the 2022 defense request to Congress included $3.3 billion in military aid for Afghanistan.

Of this, $1 billion is intended for supporting Afghanistan's air force and other missions, and included three newly refurbished Blackhawk helicopters that the White House said have already been delivered to Kabul.

Another $1 billion is intended for the purchase and delivery of key supplies, such as fuel, ammunition and spare parts, while $700 million will go towards Afghan soldiers' salaries.

Updated: July 24, 2021, 2:55 PM