ISLAMABAD - The Taliban reaffirmed Tuesday its commitment to ending violence in Afghanistan, while emphasizing that a comprehensive cease-fire has to be discussed during intra-Afghan peace negotiations due to begin later this month.
The proposed talks are an outcome of the agreement the United States sealed with the Taliban in February to end the nearly 19-year-old Afghan war, America's longest.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told VOA the Islamist insurgency is determined to move the Afghan peace process forward in line with the pact, dismissing suggestions the start of the talks would mark an end to insurgent violence.
"It is clearly written in the agreement that cease-fire will be one of the topics to be debated and agreed upon during intra-Afghan negotiations," Shaheen said by phone from the Taliban's political office in Doha, Qatar.
The text of the landmark U.S.-Taliban pact states that participants of the intra-Afghan negotiations will discuss the date and modalities of a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire, including joint implementation mechanisms, which will be announced along with the completion and agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan.
Shaheen emphasized that the Taliban will enter the negotiations with the intention of finding a solution to the conflict but the other side must also demonstrate "flexibility" for the talks' eventual success.
"This conflict cannot be solved unilaterally. If they want a solution, then we too are looking for same and God willing we will hopefully find a solution," he said.
No exact date has been announced for the opening round of intra-Afghan negotiations that are expected to begin as early as next week in the Qatari capital, Doha, where the U.S.-Taliban deal was negotiated and signed on Feb. 29.
The way to the long-delayed peace negotiations between Afghan warring sides was cleared on Monday when the country's president, Ashraf Ghani, signed a decree to release a last group of 400 Taliban prisoners to complete a controversy-marred prisoner swap with the insurgents as stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban deal.
The Afghan government was required to free 5,000 insurgent prisoners in exchange for 1,000 national security personnel the Taliban was holding captive. The insurgents freed all the detainees but Ghani had refused to release the 400 Taliban men, citing their involvement in serious crimes. A traditional Afghan Loya Jirga on Sunday advised the president to free the insurgents so intra-Afghan talks could begin immediately.
The agreement requires all American and coalition forces to leave Afghanistan by July 2021 in exchange for the Taliban's anti-terrorism commitments and a pledge to negotiate peace with other Afghan factions.
But skeptics continue to question insurgent commitments, fearing the Taliban may want to grab power by force after the foreign military withdrawal.
"The atmosphere for intra-Afghan negotiations is tense and, with the U.S. seemingly determined to downgrade its involvement in Afghanistan, an already fragile process is fraught with high stakes," said the International Crisis Group in its report released Tuesday.
The Brussels-based monitor group noted the Taliban's positions remain "ambiguous or undefined" on issues such as the existing Afghan constitution and political system, as well as protection of the rights of women and minorities in Afghanistan.
The insurgents reject the constitution as un-Islamic and a product of the U.S. occupation of the country.
"Many in the Afghan government and civil society worry that talks may presage the unravelling of legal, social and economic achievements made since 2001. Widespread uncertainty as to the Taliban's aims deepens these fears," the ICG report said.
The U.S. military's size has been reduced to 8,600 troops from around 13,000 at the time of the singing of the agreement with the Taliban. U.S. President Donald Trump said earlier this month that there will be "between 4,000 to 5,000" troops left in Afghanistan by the time of the U.S. November elections.