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'Accept Peace To Safeguard Afghanistan,' President Tells Taliban

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks at the second Kabul Process conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on February 28.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has proposed the recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group, as part of a process that could lead to peace negotiations and put an end to more than 16 years of fighting.

Ghani made the proposal during a February 28 conference of countries and organizations involved in the so-called Kabul Process aimed at setting up a platform for negotiations with the militants.

"I call on Taliban and their leadership -- today the decision is in your hands. Accept peace -- a dignified peace -- come together to safeguard this country," he said.

Ghani offered the militants a cease-fire, a release of prisoners, passports, an office in Kabul or another agreed location, and the removal of sanctions.

The Afghan president also said he would be ready to accept a review of the constitution as part of an accord with the Taliban.

In return, the militants would have to recognize the Kabul government and respect the rule of law, Ghani said.

"We are making this offer without any preconditions in order to pave the way for a peace agreement," he said, insisting that Kabul "will consider the Taliban's view in the peace talks."

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during during the conference in Kabul on February 28.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during during the conference in Kabul on February 28.

The one-day conference in Kabul was attended by representatives from more than 20 countries and several international organizations. The Taliban was not invited.

It comes as the Western-backed government in Kabul has been struggling to fend off the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO troops in 2014.

The new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, announced in August, is intended to break a stalemate with the insurgents and push them to the negotiating table.

The United States has since deployed 3,000 more troops to the country to train, advise, and assist and to conduct counterterrorism missions, and increased air strikes against the militants. The United States currently has about 14,000 uniformed personnel in Afghanistan.

The Taliban refuses to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, which it calls a "puppet regime," instead demanding to speak to the United States, the largest contributor of troops to the war.

"It would help in finding a solution if America accepts the legitimate demands of the Afghan people and forward its own concerns and requests for discussion to the Islamic Emirate through a peaceful channel," the Taliban said in a statement this week.

Washington insists that the Kabul government must play a lead role in the negotiations.

The Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks in 2015, but they broke down almost immediately.

During the Kabul gathering, Ghani also called for government-to-government talks with neighboring Pakistan, saying Kabul was ready to "forget the unpleasant past" and start a new phase of relations with Islamabad.

Pakistan has been under increasing pressure from both Afghan and U.S. officials to take action against militants operating in the country.

Islamabad denies harboring militant groups that carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters