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HERAT, Afghanistan – A prominent Afghan political leader who once had the support of some officials to lead Afghanistan's negotiating team with the Taliban, warned the president Wednesday against squandering the best opportunity at peace in more than 17 years of war.
In an interview with The Associated Press, former Cabinet minister Ismail Khan said "the Taliban are ready to find a solution that is good for every Afghan," but they steadfastly refuse to talk with the Afghan government alone, saying the government is a U.S. "puppet."
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban's office in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar, said the Taliban negotiation team will hold its next round of talks with Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on Monday. The Taliban have been negotiating with the U.S. to end America's longest war, which has cost it more than $1 trillion.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has been demanding his government lead all peace talks with the Taliban, rejected a meeting between the Taliban and a large gathering of prominent Afghan figures, including former President Hamid Karzai and Khan, in Moscow earlier this month.
"Afghan mujahedeen, Afghan intellectuals, elders and politicians, including the Afghan government should start talks with the Taliban," to find a negotiated end to the war that would allow the U.S. to withdraw its forces, said Khan, who spoke to the AP from Afghanistan's western city of Herat.
Khan, who served in Karzai's government, was a jihadi leader during the 1980s U.S.-backed war against the former Soviet Union. He was among those mujahedeen leaders who became politicians after the Taliban took control of the country.
Meanwhile, Ghani's peace envoy Omer Daudzai on Wednesday sought to reassure a gathering of women and human rights activists in the Afghan capital Kabul with a promise to hold a Loya Jirga, or gathering of political and tribal leaders, in mid-March to lay out lines in the sand the Afghan government won't cross when it eventually enters talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan under a harsh form of Islamic law from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks. Many fear that a peace agreement with the Taliban will erode the faltering progress made since their ouster.
One contentious red line for President Ghani has been the holding of presidential elections in July. Daudzai said July presidential polls were non-negotiable. Yet even Khalilzad has expressed reservations about elections as all sides seek to find a way toward peace.
Khan outright rejected elections, saying polls held as peace talks are underway will undermine negotiations ensuring it would be impossible for the Taliban to participate.
Instead, Khan supported an interim set up, which the religious movement has also reportedly supported in talks with Khalilzad. Khan said an interim government could govern for six months to one year while the country prepares for polls.
Meanwhile, Daudzai said the Americans and the Taliban had agreed in principle on the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but only after a peace deal is reached with popular support.
However, President Donald Trump has expressed his frustration with America's continued participation and there have been reports that the United States is making plans to withdraw half of its troops by the summer.
The wrangling between the government and its opposition, including Khan, highlights the difficulty of finding a peace agreement.
Almost five months after Khalilzad's appointment as Washington's peace envoy, bickering political forces in Kabul have been unable to cobble together a negotiating team. Khalilzad in November urged Ghani to put together a strong team that could ensure that fragile rights, including for women, are enshrined in any agreement with the Taliban.
Talks between the Taliban and Khalilzad have focused on U.S. troop withdrawal and guaranteeing Afghanistan is not used again as a staging ground for terrorists to attack the United States.
Khan, however, warned that a withdrawal of troops without an agreement that recognizes Afghanistan's stakeholders risks disintegrating into violence. He also urged the United Nations to step up as guarantors of any agreement.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.