- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Taliban, the terror group who have been battling the U.S. and NATO coalition in the country for the last 16 years, should have a seat at the table in peace talks geared toward ending the longest armed conflict in U.S. history, a top Afghan leader said Tuesday.

Including the Islamist insurgency in any bilateral or multilateral peace talks will be integral in moving the country past the war and conflict that have defined Afghanistan over the last several decades and allow the country to benefit from “the dividends of peace,” Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said Tuesday.

In a speech at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mr. Abdullah said the Kabul government has already taken steps to fold in several of Afghanistan’s warring factions into the political process.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of the Afghan terror group Hezb-i-Islami, said his organization was preparing to take part in next year’s round of district and provincial elections across Afghanistan.

A feared former mujahedeen commander during Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Mr. Hekmatyar and his followers were responsible for numerous suicide attacks and bombings against Afghan and allied forces. His fighters also planned and executed so-called “green on blue” attacks, where they posed as Afghan soldiers and opened fire on their American counterparts.

Hezb-i-Islami’s willing participation in next year’s elections is a clear sign that even some of Afghanistan’s most hardened terror groups could be willing to come to the negotiation table, Mr. Abdullah said.

“Is it not better to have these [political] debates with these groups, than to have those groups planning attacks?” he asked the audience Tuesday. That sentiment seems to be reflected in the minds of Afghans, according to a new countrywide poll released Tuesday.

The annual survey by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation, released in Kabul, found that 32.8 percent of Afghans believe their country is moving in the right direction, up from 29.3 percent in 2016, The Associated Press reports.

Another 61.2 percent said the country is heading in the wrong direction, down from a record high of 65.9 percent in 2016, according to the figures compiled by the Asia Foundation.

But the Taliban remains a formidable fighting force and a growing challenge to the stability of the Kabul government of President Ashraf Ghani.

The Agence France-Presse news service reported Tuesday that dozens of Afghan police officers and soldiers had been killed in a wave of Taliban attacks on checkpoints Monday in the southern province of Kandahar and the western province of Farah, hours after a suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a U.S. military convoy and wounded four soldiers.

Afghan officials said that 45 militants were killed in the clashes.

The Trump White House has quietly signaled it could accept a negotiated peace pact in Afghanistan that included the Taliban, though not Islamic State, which is increasingly active in the country.

Mr. Trump alluded to a potential political role in a postwar Afghanistan for the Taliban during an August prime-time address to the nation unveiling his new strategy for the region. Days later, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson followed up on Mr. Trump’s assertion, saying the White House is fully prepared to support Taliban peace talks.

But any outreach in Washington and Kabul to Taliban factions open to peace talks has been overshadowed by Islamic State’s increasingly violent presence in the country.

In the wake of the emergence of Islamic State’s Afghan cell, some in Afghanistan “see the Taliban as the lesser evil,” Mr. Abdullah said, leading to fears that a deal with the Taliban will not bring an end to the violence.

Mr. Abdullah noted that despite the growing activity of groups such as Islamic State and the Pakistani-based Haqqani Network, the Taliban remains the jihadi organization in his country.

“The umbrella is the Taliban, [no one] can operate without their support,” Mr. Abdullah said, noting that if the Taliban is willing to go to the negotiation table, most of the Afghan jihadi groups would follow suit.

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