KABUL -- The reclusive spiritual leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban has purportedly recognized peace talks with the Afghan government as “legitimate,” saying in a rare message that the goal of the process is an “end to occupation" by foreign forces.
The July 15 statement issued on the extremist group's official website marks a departure from the Taliban leadership’s traditional position: that there could be no meaningful talks until all foreign military forces have left Afghan soil.
It is also the first comment about the peace process issued in the name of Mullah Mohammad Omar since Afghan officials and Taliban representatives held their initial official talks earlier this month in Pakistan.
Although the statement does not specifically mention the July 7 peace talks hosted by Pakistan in Murree, a tourist town in the hills north of Islamabad, it has eased concerns that the meeting lacked the Taliban leadership’s backing.
In fact, there have been several informal meetings in recent months between Taliban representatives and Afghan officials.
The first official meeting between Taliban delegates and members of the Afghan High Peace Council, on July 7, was seen as a significant step forward.
But the absence of a clear statement from Mullah Omar on the process has been exacerbating divisions within the Taliban between those for and against the peace talks.
Mullah Omar himself has not been seen in public for years.
Some disgruntled Taliban factions have suggested he is dead or ill and that others may be issuing statements in his name.
Commanders from those factions have openly questioned the legitimacy of the Taliban negotiators in Murree, revealing divisions within the movement between the older leadership and younger Afghan fighters.
Islamic State Emerges
Those divisions have been aggravated by the emergence of a regional branch of the Islamic State (IS) militant group that has clashed repeatedly with the Taliban in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan.
In June, the Taliban warned the IS group not to expand in the region.
But that has not stopped some Taliban fighters from defecting and swearing allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the reclusive Mullah Omar.
Mullah Omar’s statement seeks to heal the divisions, saying “all mujahedin and countrymen should be confident that in this process, I will unwaveringly defend our legal rights and viewpoint everywhere.”
The statement, issued on Taliban websites on July 15, was part of Mullah Omar’s annual message ahead of the Eid al-Fitr festival that marks the end of Ramadan.
It says: “If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies are not prohibited. Concurrently with armed jihad, political endeavors, and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate Islamic principle.”
Qazi Mohammad Amin Wiqad told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan on July 15 that any efforts made by Mullah Omar for peace “will be supported and encouraged” by the Afghan government.
Wiqad said Mullah Omar “will have no problem building a political presence here [in Kabul] and resuming activities to build peace and create trust.”
The Afghan government has not said exactly where or when the next round of peace talks would be.
But Pakistan has said the discussions would continue after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends on July 17.
Wiqad said the Afghan High Peace Council has agreed with the Taliban on a second phase of official talks.
He said: “We would like to work on a list of issues that would be discussed in the meeting which will include a cease fire and the release of prisoners.
Eventually we would discuss the removal of some names from black lists if the talks proceed successfully.”
But Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, the former foreign minister of the Taliban regime, was more pessimistic about the peace process.
Mutawakkil told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that the peace talks are better than no peace process at all.
But Mutawakkil said he does not think the Afghan government or international forces in Afghanistan were seriously preparing the ground for “a lasting peace.”
Most NATO-led foreign combat troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and responsibility for security was handed over to Afghan security forces.
But about 10,000 U.S. troops have remained in Afghanistan to help train Afghan forces.
Under current agreements, those troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Written by Ron Synovitz, based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nasim Shafak in Kabul