Taliban threaten Afghan election, hail progress on pact with U.S.

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KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan Taliban on Tuesday denounced a presidential vote due next month as a sham and threatened to attack election rallies even as the militants and the United States reported significant progress on a deal to end America’s longest war.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani attend a rally during the first day of the presidential election campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

The pact will be centered on a U.S. commitment to withdraw troops in exchange for a Taliban promise the country will not be used to plot terrorist attacks, both sides say.

A Taliban commitment to talk peace with the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan will likely be part of the agreement, but many government officials fear their war with the Taliban will not end if U.S. troops leave.

The Taliban, fighting to rid the country of foreign forces and create an Islamic state, called for a boycott of the election scheduled for Sept. 28.

Foreign powers should focus efforts on the deal with the United States on “ending the occupation”, they said.

“This election process is nothing more than a ploy,” the Taliban said in a statement.

President Ashraf Ghani is widely expected to win a second term and has insisted the vote must go ahead as scheduled.

The U.S.-trained former World Bank official came to power in 2014 after winning an election marred by fraud accusations.

The Taliban said their fighters would block the vote and warned of attacks: “Stay away from gatherings and rallies that could become potential targets,” the militants said.

Ghani’s office said the people had the right to choose their leader and the government was ready to hold a transparent vote.

“They should show peace through their actions and not threaten people,” the office said of the Taliban.

The government is not involved in the peace talks because the Taliban refuse to deal with them, labeling them a U.S. puppet.

PROGRESS ON PACT

Ghani’s running mate, who last week survived a militant suicide attack on his Kabul office, condemned the Taliban as “sham Afghans” acting at the behest of old rival Pakistan.

“They are created and backed to suppress a nation, bring about a medieval system in the name of religion to feed the greedy beast of Pakistani establishment,” Amrullah Saleh said on Twitter.

Saleh, a former intelligence chief, is a fierce critic of Pakistan, which many Afghans accuse of backing the Taliban. Pakistan denies that.

Rights group Amnesty international condemned the Taliban threat, saying they were claiming to pursue peace but threatening to carry out war crimes by attacking election rallies.

About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations. President Donald Trump has announced his aim to end the war.

Both the U.S. peace envoy leading talks with the Taliban, and the Taliban reported progress in their talks in Qatar, where technical teams were discussing mechanisms on Tuesday.

The militants control more territory than at any point since the United States bombed them out of power in 2001, and there has been no let-up in the violence.

Five people were killed and seven were wounded in a bomb attack on a government vehicle in Kabul on Tuesday, authorities said.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on Twitter late on Monday, there had been excellent progress and the Taliban were equally enthusiastic, saying they expected an outcome within days.

“Extraordinary progress,” said Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban political office in Qatar.

Khalilzad was in India on Tuesday and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar traveled to Uzbekistan for a three-day visit, Shaheen said.

Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Andrew Cawthorne