Insurgents are ready for peace in Afghanistan, but are finding it hard to trust, the head of the feared Haqqani network said Thursday in a controversial and much-discussed New York Times op-ed.
"Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop," Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban's No. 2 leader wrote under the heading, "What We, the Taliban, Want."
The Taliban did not choose to fight U.S. and NATO forces, but rather "were forced to defend ourselves. The withdrawal of foreign forces has been our first and foremost demand," said Haqqani, who is on the FBI's most wanted list and has been designated by the State Department as head of a global terror network.
Despite the "flip-flopping and ever-moving goal posts of the American side," negotiations with the U.S. have now put both sides on the verge of a seven-day "reduction of violence" that could eventually lead to talks with the Kabul government on peace deal, Haqqani wrote.
"That we stuck with such turbulent talks with the enemy we have fought bitterly for two decades, even as death rained from the sky, testifies to our commitment to ending the hostilities and bringing peace to our country," Haqqani said. The statement glossed over the relentless Taliban attacks and suicide bombings that have left the insurgents in control of about half the country.
"We are aware of the concerns and questions in and outside Afghanistan about the kind of government we would have after the foreign troops withdraw," he said. "My response to such concerns is that it will depend on a consensus among Afghans."
There was no immediate response from the Trump administration or the Pentagon, but the op-ed drew fierce criticism, even from inside the Times.
Rep. Liz Cheney, D-Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican leader in the House, ripped the Times on Twitter for giving "the Taliban a forum to spew garbage. The author is a designated global terrorist."
Also on Twitter, Mujib Mashal, the Times' senior correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote that the Haqqani op-ed "omits the most fundamental fact -- that Siraj is no Taliban peace-maker as he paints himself, that he's behind some of most ruthless attacks of this war with many civilian lives lost."
In an emailed statement to The Hill, Ellen Murphy, senior vice president for communications at the Times, defended the decision to publish the piece.
"We know firsthand how dangerous and destructive the Taliban is," Murphy said. "But, our mission at Times Opinion is to tackle big ideas from a range of newsworthy viewpoints. We've actively solicited voices from all sides of the Afghanistan conflict, the government, the Taliban and from citizens."
Haqqani rose to power as the son of the late Jalaluddin Haqqani, once a Cold War ally of the U.S. He was funded by the CIA in the fight by Afghanistan's mujahideen against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
Jalaluddin Haqqani later became a protector and adviser to al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden.
According to the counterterrorism guide published by the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Haqqanis are mainly based in North Waziristan, Pakistan, from which they conduct cross-border operations into eastern Afghanistan and Kabul.
The Haqqanis "are considered the most lethal and sophisticated insurgent group targeting U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces in Afghanistan; they typically conduct coordinated small-arms assaults coupled with rocket attacks, IEDs, suicide attacks, and attacks using bomb-laden vehicles," the guide states.
Haqqani became deputy to Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in 2015, "cementing the alliance between the Haqqanis and the Taliban," according to the document.
In the op-ed, Haqqani said "I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam -- from the right to education to the right to work -- are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity."
"We are also aware of concerns about the potential of Afghanistan being used by disruptive groups to threaten regional and world security," he said, "but these concerns are inflated."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.