Afghan president blasts Taliban 'slaves', says little time left for peace

KABUL (Reuters) - President Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan faced a terrorist enemy led by Taliban “slaves” in Pakistan in a somber speech to parliament on Monday that nonetheless left the door open to resuming peace talks with parts of the Taliban.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan December 31, 2015. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Addressing a joint session of the two houses of parliament following a Taliban bomb blast that killed at least 64 people and wounded hundreds in Kabul on Tuesday, Ghani branded the insurgents criminals fighting the legitimate government.

But he stopped short of declaring a state of national emergency, pledging war against radical groups like Islamic State, usually known in Afghanistan as Daesh, or the Haqqani network while suggesting there was still some hope of compromise with at least some Taliban.

“The enemies of Afghanistan are Daesh, al Qaeda, the murderous Haqqani network and some of the Taliban who enjoy shedding the blood of countrymen,” he said.

He added that the doors of negotiation would remain open for those Taliban ready to stop bloodshed but added: “This opportunity will not be there forever.”

He said Taliban leaders sheltering in the western Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta were “slaves and enemies of Afghanistan who shed the blood of their countrymen” and he called on the government in Islamabad to wipe them out.

He did not say whose slaves he thought the Taliban were, but his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, frequently accused Pakistan of harboring the Taliban and supporting other militant groups such Haqqani network.

Pakistan denies harboring and aiding the Taliban but Ghani urged its government to “fulfill promises and carry out military operations against those whose bases are in Pakistan”.

The response from the Taliban, who have already rejected peace talks while Western forces remain in Afghanistan, was scornful. “The nation is not blind, people understand who the slave is and who works for the interest of others,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet.

After a year that saw 11,000 civilian casualties and some 5,500 members of the security forces killed fighting the Taliban, the distinction may make little concrete difference to the fighting on the ground.

But two weeks after the Taliban announced the start of their annual spring offensive and then followed up with the biggest single attack seen in Kabul since 2011, there had been wide speculation among politicians in Kabul that Ghani could declare the stalled peace process formally dead.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001, are seeking to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and reimpose Islamic rule.

Ghani’s speech came at a time of growing apprehension in Kabul at the prospect of more intense fighting over the summer months. Over recent days, Afghan security forces have fought back Taliban attacks on Kunduz, the northern city that briefly fell to the insurgents last year.

Large parts of the southern province of Helmand are now in insurgent hands and there has been heavy fighting in several other provinces from Herat in the west to Kunar in the east.

Ghani said security forces, fighting alone since the end of NATO’s main combat mission in 2014, were in a stronger position than last year and said a permanent minister of defense and head of the main intelligence agency would be appointed soon.

Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie