KABUL: The deputy leader of the Taliban and one of the world’s most wanted militants has written an opinion piece for the New York Times in which he says the Afghan insurgents are “fully committed” to a deal with Washington.
The article, headlined “What the Taliban Want”, represents the highest-level statement from the group on months of negotiations with the United States, and comes as they are believed to be days away from signing an agreement that would see America begin to withdraw troops from its longest war.
It is also believed to the first time that Sirajuddin Haqqani – who doubles as head of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terror group that is one of the most dangerous factions fighting Afghan and US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan – has given such a lengthy statement in English.
Previously, he has communicated mainly through rare audio messages, usually in Pashto. The most recent one on a Taliban website was dated June 2017.
In the Times article, Haqqani repeated many Taliban talking points from the negotiations, including how women would have rights “granted by Islam” – the problem being, as many observers have pointed out, the group’s repressive and brutal interpretation of the faith.
The leader of a group known for the frequent use of suicide bombers targeting civilians also said he is “convinced the killing and the maiming must stop”.
The Taliban have been conducting direct talks with the US since 2018 on a deal which would see Washington begin pulling troops out in return for security guarantees from the militants and a promise to begin peace talks with the government in Kabul.
The agreement could come as soon as Feb 29, though no date has yet been made public.
“We are about to sign an agreement with the United States and we are fully committed to carrying out its every single provision, in letter and spirit,” Haqqani wrote.
But he also admitted that the group is “aware of the concerns and questions” over any potential Taliban return to power.
Many Afghans have voiced anger at being sidelined from the talks, and resistance to returning to life under the militants’ repressive rule – though many others simply want security and for the violence to end.
Haqqani wrote that the Taliban were ready to agree on “a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded”.
Haqqani also stated that concerns about Afghanistan being used by foreign militant groups to “threaten regional and world security” were “inflated”.
The US invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda, who were guests of the Taliban at the time.
One of the promises believed to be included in the deal is for the Taliban to ban any foreign militant groups on Afghan soil.
The Haqqanis are long suspected of having links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, while Sirajuddin’s father Jalaluddin spoke Arabic and was alleged to have had nurtured close ties to Al Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden.
The network has also been accused of assassinating top Afghan officials and holding kidnapped Western citizens for ransom – including US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, released in 2014.
Reaction to the piece itself – and the decision to run it – was swift and angry on social media.
“The NYT has decided to amplify and effectively promote the messages of the world’s most notorious terrorist (and Al Qaeda affiliate)-a man who has the blood of hundreds of thousands,” tweeted Saad Mohseni, chairman of the group which owns Afghanistan’s biggest news channel Tolo.
Mujib Mashal, the New York Times senior correspondent in Afghanistan, tweeted that the piece was “independent of our news operations & judgement”.
Others questioned whether Haqqani had penned the piece at all.
“Who (an American, expat Afghan in the US, ISI??) was the ghost writer?” tweeted Brookings analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown.
Haqqani’s piece was published as the government in Kabul was facing political turmoil.
Final election results released on Tuesday showed President Ashraf Ghani has secured a second term – but he was immediately challenged by his top rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who has said he will form his own government.
The international community – most notably the US – have remained largely and unusually silent in the wake of the results, despite pumping millions of dollars into the election process.
“I don’t have anything to say about Afghanistan other than we’ve been following the election results very, very closely,” US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told reporters in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, adding that a statement would come “before too terribly long”.