ISLAMABAD — The Taliban said Wednesday they are not seeking a "monopoly on power" in a future administration in Afghanistan but are looking for ways to co-exist with Afghan institutions — the most conciliatory statement to date from the militants.
The statement came amid intensified U.S.-led efforts to resolve the long-running Afghanistan war. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad reported this week that there had been "agreements in principle" toward a framework for peace with the Taliban, who now control almost half of the country and carry out near-daily attacks, mainly targeting Afghan security forces and government officials.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman based in the Gulf Arab country of Qatar where the Taliban have a political office, said that once U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban want to live with other Afghans, "tolerate one another and start life like brothers." Shaheen's statement was provided in an exclusive audio message to The Associated Press.
"After the end of the occupation, Afghans should forget their past and tolerate one another and start life like brothers. After the withdrawal, we are not seeking a monopoly on power," Shaheen said.
"We believe in an inclusive Afghan world, where all Afghans can see themselves in it," he added.
He also said the Taliban envision a reformed police and local police forces, without offering specifics. Afghanistan's local police forces have been widely criticized as deeply corrupt and intimidating of the local population.
Shaheen said another round of talks with Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, is planned for Feb. 25 in Doha.
Khalilzad, who held talks with the Taliban for six days last week in Qatar, said during a visit to Kabul on Monday that much more remains to be done but that there has been significant progress toward an agreement with the insurgents.
In turn, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani assured Afghans that no deals would be made without the Kabul government's awareness and full participation.
U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in November 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks and ousted the Taliban, who had harbored al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban, who had ruled Afghanistan since 1996, had imposed a harsh form of Islamic law.
Shaheen also said the U.S. and the Taliban will establish joint technical teams to work out details of a future U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as ways of preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
Khalilzad, who was appointed last September, has stepped up efforts to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan's protracted war that will allow an eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces and bring to an end America's longest military engagement that has already cost Washington about $1 trillion.
President Donald Trump has also expressed frustration with the U.S. continued involvement in Afghanistan, lending a greater urgency to an early settlement.
Despite intense negotiations with Khalilzad, the Taliban have refused to negotiate directly with Kabul and often refer to the Afghan government as puppets of the United States. Khalilzad has also pressed Ghani's government, which is deeply divided, to cobble together a strong negotiating team.
Atta-ul Rahman Salim, deputy head of the Afghan High Peace Council which comprises top Afghan clerics and other prominent figures, said the only way to peace is through direct talks with the government.
"If the Taliban really want to join the peace process, the best and easy way to start is with direct peace talks with the Afghan government," he said, adding that "there is a big difference between what you say and what you do."
Despite the Taliban insurgents' refusal to negotiate with Kabul, Shaheen's message appeared directed at a wide array of stakeholders in Afghanistan — possibly even Ghani's government — who could work together to hasten U.S. troop pullout.
"The withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan is a shared responsibility and a pride for all Afghans," Shaheen said.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.