Taliban leader affirms commitment to peace deal with US
The leader of the Taliban said on Wednesday that his group was committed to a landmark deal with the US, despite being accused of carrying out thousands of attacks in Afghanistan since the deal was signed.
In a rare message released a few days before the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Haibatullah Akhundzada urged Washington "not to waste" the opportunity offered by the deal to end America's longest war.
"The Islamic Emirate is committed to the agreement... and urges the other side to honour its own commitments and not allow this critical opportunity to go to waste," Akhundzada said in a statement, using the official name the Taliban gave to Afghanistan when they were in power in the late 1990s.
After months of negotiations, the Taliban and the US signed a deal at the end of February which stipulates that Washington will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by next year in return for security guarantees.
"I urge American officials to not afford anyone the opportunity to obstruct, delay and ultimately derail this internationally recognised bilateral agreement", the reclusive leader said.
Akhundzada hails from the Taliban's traditional bastion of Kandahar, and was appointed head of the group after a US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in 2016.
Mansour had succeeded Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s original founder.
Akhundzada is a hardline religious scholar and a former head of the Taliban courts
US President Donald Trump's administration has made it a priority to end the war in Afghanistan, and in a bid to pull out foreign forces US officials have been pushing the Taliban and government leaders to hold peace talks.
The talks have stumbled, but the Afghan government was strengthened over the weekend by the announcement of a power-sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani and his former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who will lead negotiations with the Taliban.
Under the US accord the Taliban pledged to stop attacking cities and foreign troops, but militants have continued to target Afghan forces in the provinces.
Analysts say the Taliban have been emboldened by the deal, and Afghan government officials have reported more than 3,800 attacks since it was signed, with 420 civilians killed and 906 wounded.
The US official who brokered the deal with the Taliban said last week that the militants had kept up their end of the bargain -- even if recent violence violated the spirit of it.
"The Taliban have implemented their agreement not to attack the coalition forces," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative to Afghanistan.
His remarks came after a horrific attack against a maternity hospital in Kabul that left dozens dead -- including mothers and infants -- and a suicide bombing at a funeral.
The Taliban denied involvement in the attacks, but President Ghani blamed them and Islamic State (IS) extremists for the bloodshed.
"They've committed not to carry out attacks in 34 major cities, and they haven’t done that, based on our assessment," Khalilzad said of the Taliban.
"But we believe that they're in violation of the spirit" of the deal, he said, adding the hospital attack was carried out by IS.
Following the recent attacks the government ordered security forces to switch to an "offensive" posture against the Taliban.
They responded by vowing to increase attacks against government forces.
Akhundzada, in his message, blamed Afghan government "air strikes and artillery fire" for causing civilian casualties.