Ex-Taliban official: 'No Afghan peace deal if air raids continue'

Syed Mohammad Akbar Agha accuses President Ghani’s government of ‘sabotaging’ talks with attacks that kill civilians.

    Kabul, Afghanistan – A return to peace is not possible in Afghanistan if its government continues to conduct air strikes which have resulted in countless civilian casualties, a former Taliban official has said.

    In a press conference in Kabul on Wednesday, Syed Mohammad Akbar Agha, who is the current leader of Rah-e-Nejat (High Council of Salvation), said President Ashraf Ghani’s government is sabotaging peace talks being held in Qatar between Taliban representatives and US officials.

    “The government doesn’t want peace. They are still targeting civilian areas while claiming to have targeted Taliban hideouts,” Agha told Al Jazeera, adding that air raids are being carried out “almost every day”.

    “We are all positive about peace and very serious, especially now that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is directly involved in the talks in Qatar,” he said.

    “We are expecting positive results for peace in Afghanistan.”

    Taliban and United States officials are meeting for the third day on Wednesday in Qatar’s capital Doha, where two main issues being discussed in the high-level talks are: the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and assurances that Afghanistan will not be used by foreign armed fighters.

    The talks have gained momentum in recent months after the US decided to engage with the Taliban, which has been waging a deadly armed rebellion since the group was removed from power in 2001.

    US President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking to end the 17-year war, the US’s’s longest, that has left thousands dead.

    According to the United Nations, at least 32,000 civilians have been killed and another 60,000 wounded in the last decade, when the organisation began compiling the data.

    Civilian deaths

    Baradar, one of the Taliban founders, is attending the talks in Doha for the first time. He is the highest-level representative to take part in negotiations with the US special envoy for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad.

    The Taliban have repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, calling it a “puppet” of the US.

    “We, like all the Afghans, want peace in this country. The Taliban are now sitting down to talk, which means they are ready for peace as well,” Agha told Al Jazeera.

    “But if innocent civilians are killed this way in air strikes, they will never trust the government and will, in fact, stand against it.”

    Agha, former leader of Taliban’s Jaish-e-Muslimeen wing, fought against the Afghan forces after the US toppled the Taliban government in 2001. His council is currently seen making efforts to restore peace in Afghanistan.

    Officials from the Afghan government were not immediately available for their reaction on Agha’s comments in the press conference.

    Last year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed its “strong concern” at the rising number of civilian casualties from air raids.

    The report said aerial attacks killed 149 people and wounded more than 200 civilians in the first half of 2018, up by 52 percent from the same period a year before that.

    Among the deadly incidents was the one in the northern province of Kunduz in April 2018, when an Afghan air raid killed or wounded 107 people, mostly children, at a religious gathering.

    The government said the bombing had targeted a Taliban meeting where senior members of the group were planning more attacks.

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