Taliban aiming for an 'inclusive' Afghan government, spokesman says

“We want an inclusive government because that will guarantee a stable government in the country. Otherwise we will have fighting."
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A U.S. Marine watches Afghan commandos take part in a combat training exercise in Helmand Province.Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Saphora Smith, Ali Arouzi and Mushtaq Yusufzai

As the Taliban and the United States inch closer toward a deal that would have U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the militant group's leaders are trying to present themselves as a political movement ready to responsibly wield power.

Suhail Shaheen, a senior Taliban spokesman, recently told NBC News that the Taliban was willing to form a government that includes allies of President Ashraf Ghani.

“We want an inclusive government because that will guarantee a stable government in the country. Otherwise we will have fighting,” Shaheen said. The Taliban has so far rejected official negotiations with the Ghani administration, labeling it a "stooge" government.

Shaheen did not elaborate on what an "inclusive" government means in practice or whether it amounted to a democracy. The Taliban has misled the media in the past and has consistently rejected taking part in elections and called on Afghans to boycott votes.

Shaheen also said that shortly after signing the deal with the U.S., the Taliban would take part in an "intra-Afghan" negotiation with the aim of establishing a government in which all Afghans can participate. He added that the Taliban would consider the Afghan government as one faction of the non-Taliban side but would still not recognize it as legitimate.

America's war in Afghanistan has raged for 18 years and cost the lives of around 2,300 U.S. troops, according to the Department of Defense. It is the U.S.'s longest war.

From January 2009, when the United Nations began a systematic documentation of civilian casualties, to September, some 34,000 civilians were killed as a result of the armed conflict.

"Everyone knows that it is a meaningless war in Afghanistan," Shaheen said.

Analysts caution that the militants — whose harsh and austere rule ended in 2001 when American troops invaded the country after the group sheltered 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden — have made similar but vague statements in the past about engaging with Afghan society and not seeking a monopoly on power. In practice, they warned, negotiations may not play out as Shaheen suggests.

Taliban members including Taliban Qatar spokesman Suhail Shaheen, second from the right, in Doha in July. Karim Jaafar / AFP - Getty Images file

The question remains what will happen during these talks, said Ashley Jackson, a research associate at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank.

"Will fighting continue between Taliban forces and the Afghan government? Will they try and take more territory while those talks are going on, or will be there some sort of peace or some sort of violence reduction?" she said.

But, Jackson said, these latest comments represent an increasingly concrete acknowledgment that the Taliban may be willing to engage with Ghani's government and negotiate a political settlement.

Graeme Smith, a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, which aims to prevent and resolve deadly conflict, called Shaheen's comments "fairly momentous."

“The Taliban has always vowed that they would never negotiate the political future of Afghanistan while there were foreign boots on Afghan soil,” he said.

Now the Taliban appears to be saying that they will do just that, he added, because they will be sitting down and beginning peace negotiations, including with members of the Afghan government, before U.S. troops would have physically left Afghanistan.

“You can see the Taliban forming their thinking more and more clearly of the next steps of the political process,” he added.

Whether or not an "inclusive government" for all Afghans can be achieved in practice is a different issue, however.

An Afghan girl sucks on a pacifier outside her home at a camp for internally displaced people in Kabul on Dec. 9.Altaf Qadri / AP

The Taliban's claims come after years of restricting girls' education and stopping women from working outside of the home unless accompanied by a male relative. And while in power, the Taliban persecuted religious and ethnic minorities — particularly Shiite Hazaras.

But before so-called intra-Afghan talks can start, the U.S. and Taliban must reach a deal. Last week, the U.S. special envoy said the U.S. was "taking a brief pause," apparently in reference to the negotiations after the Taliban attempted to breach a U.S. airfield.

NBC News also reported on Saturday that the Trump administration intends to announce the drawdown of about 4,000 troops from Afghanistan as early as this week, according to three current and former U.S. officials. The move could potentially undermine negotiations with the Taliban as the group's key demand is for U.S. troops to leave Afghan soil.

Shaheen told NBC News that the Taliban would guarantee women’s right to work and to study as is enshrined in Islamic law, but he did not give details on what this entails. While the Taliban has never explicitly forbidden women from going to school or work, in reality it often limits girls to only a few years of schooling or bans them from education altogether, according to Human Rights Watch.

Ali Arouzi and Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Doha, Qatar; Saphora Smith from London; and Ahmed Mengli from Kabul.

Ahmed Mengli contributed.