Taliban faces internal debate over Ghani's peace plan



Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addresses US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in Kabul March 13. Elements of the Taliban are open to talks with the Afghan government, said Mattis March 13 during an unannounced visit to Kabul, an assertion backed by the Taliban's muted response to a peace plan proposed by Ghani last month. [Thomas Watkins/AFP]

KABUL -- The Taliban's muted response to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's offer of peace talks last month reflects an internal debate over the merits of engaging with a government that the group has long rejected, according to analysts.

In the two weeks since Ghani's offer, the Taliban has posted a statement and an unsigned commentary on its Alemarah website.

The Taliban's silence has provoked repeated calls for a direct response to Ghani's proposal made at an international conference in Kabul on February 28. The Afghan leader also called for a cease-fire after which the Taliban could become a political party.

Giving the government the upper hand

The unsigned commentary, posted March 13, reiterated the Taliban was prepared to negotiate but only with Washington -- not with Kabul.

The taunts follow a statement released late last week where the Taliban denounced Kabul and its peace process efforts.

But the proposal has placed the Taliban in a bind, say security analysts.

An outright refusal to talk to Ghani's administration would give Afghan and coalition forces justification to ramp up air strikes against the militants.

"It's not an easy decision. If they reject the offer, they will give the government the upper hand," an Afghan security source told AFP.

Dissension within Taliban ranks

"What the statement is saying is 'we haven't heard enough to come to talks'," a Western diplomat in Kabul told AFP.

A senior figure in the Taliban leadership council -- known as the Quetta Shura -- said the militants were not treating Ghani's peace plan "seriously".

"We have said that we would talk with America [and not the Afghan government]," he told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

But not everyone in the Taliban leadership shares that view.

"Some think they should talk, some think they shouldn't talk to the Afghans, and there are some who think they shouldn't talk at all," a Western official in contact with the Taliban told AFP.

Feeling the pressure

Fierce fighting over the winter, when freezing temperatures and snow usually bring a lull in combat, fuelled speculation the Taliban was feeling the pressure from the US-led aerial bombing campaign.

Air strikes have intensified under the US administration's new strategy announced in August that gave American pilots more leeway to target militants.

The Taliban's silence was "encouraging", said Brig. Gen. Michael Fenzel, planning director for NATO's mission in Afghanistan, Tuesday.

"Normally whenever there's been an offer... it's been rejected out of hand," he told reporters.

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