Taliban say U.S. must quit Afghanistan for peace

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban warned on Friday against sending more Western troops to Afghanistan, while pledging that it sought only independence under Islamic rule and rejecting concerns it would harbor foreign militants.

In a statement marking Eid al-Fitr, the festival at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada combined defiant calls for the United States to get out of Afghanistan with more conciliatory messages.

“The occupation is the main obstacle in the way of peace,” he said, in comments which echoed similar messages the movement has sent in the past.

While not explicitly acknowledging the recent debate in Washington over U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the message appeared to address several of the arguments made for maintaining or even boosting support for the Western-backed government in Kabul.

In particular, it rejected the concerns that Afghanistan could once again become a haven for foreign militants seeking to attack the United States and its allies as al Qaeda did when it struck the Twin Towers in 2001.

Calling for “complete independence of the country and establishment of an Islamic system”, he warned against plans under consideration to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by up to 3,000-5,000.

“The more they insist on maintaining the presence of their forces here or want a surge of their forces, the more regional sensitivity against them will intensify,” he said.

However, he also promised “constructive and good relations with you and the world” once “your illegitimate occupation of Afghanistan comes to an end”.

He dismissed widespread accusations that the Taliban benefited from aid from other countries including Pakistan and, more recently, Russia, saying it would “not allow anyone else to intervene in Afghanistan”.

“Likewise, we don’t permit others to use the soil of Afghanistan against anyone,” he said.

He urged the United States to accept the “legitimate demands of the Afghan people” and seek peace through diplomatic means but appeared to offer no concession on the Taliban’s central demand that foreign forces must leave before peace talks begin.

“The solution of the Afghan issue through peaceful means is part and parcel of the policy of the Islamic Emirate, should the occupation come to an end,” he said.

The statement had harsh words for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which it dismissed as a “stooge” of America and blamed for rising ethnic and factional tensions in Kabul and elsewhere.

It also urged Taliban fighters to avoid civilian casualties, a call likely to be dismissed by the government and its allies following Thursday’s attack on a bank in Helmand that killed at least 34 people and last month’s deadly truck bomb in Kabul that killed at least 150 civilians.

Although the Taliban have denied responsibility for the Kabul attack, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency said it was planned and carried out by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.

Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Nick Macfie