NATO backs Afghan leader's offer of talks with the Taliban

From left, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson speak prior to a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday, April 27, 2018. NATO is set on Friday to hold its last major meeting in its old headquarters, with talks focused on strained ties with Russia, a fresh peace effort in Afghanistan and a new training mission for Iraq. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, front center, speaks with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, front right, prior to a group photo of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday, April 27, 2018. NATO is set on Friday to hold its last major meeting in its old headquarters, with talks focused on strained ties with Russia, a fresh peace effort in Afghanistan and a new training mission for Iraq. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waits for the start of the North Atlantic Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday, April 27, 2018. NATO is set on Friday to hold its last major meeting in its old headquarters, with talks focused on strained ties with Russia, a fresh peace effort in Afghanistan and a new training mission for Iraq. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS — NATO threw its weight Friday behind Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's offer of peace talks to the Taliban, embracing what top officials said is an "unprecedented" opportunity to end the conflict in the insurgency-wracked country.

NATO foreign ministers issued a statement saying the 29 allies "are united in their support for this proposal," and that they would respect a political settlement that ends violence.

Ghani has offered the extremist Islamic movement unconditional peace talks accompanied by a cease-fire, recognition of them as a political party and the release of some prisoners, among other incentives.

NATO is even open to discussions between Kabul and the Taliban on the future role of the international community in the country. The Taliban have insisted that international troops leave.

"Despite the fact that they have not yet taken up the president's offer, we urge the Taliban to take part in an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after the meeting in Brussels.

He also urged Pakistan to prevent attacks across their common border and called on Russia and Iran to contribute to regional stability.

Ghani's offer, if accepted, might eventually offer the United States and its allies a way to end the 15-year-long NATO-led presence in Afghanistan. It has been one of the most expensive wars in U.S. history, costing between $800 billion and $1 trillion, according to various estimates.

According to the website icasualties, it has also cost the lives of around 3,400 troops — some 2,300 of them from the U.S. — since 2003, when NATO took charge of the international military effort in Afghanistan, its most ambitious operation ever.

A military training effort was launched at the start of 2015, replacing overt combat operations, and the number of personnel has been ramped up this year by a further 3,000 troops to almost 16,000 personnel. But the conflict remains at a stalemate.

Friday's meeting came during a week of attacks across Afghanistan. An Islamic State suicide bomber at a voter registration center in the capital Kabul killed 57 people and wounded more than 100 others on Sunday. At least 18 troops and police officers have been killed in Taliban attacks.

Still, NATO's top general and its senior political envoy told The Associated Press Friday that Ghani's proposal is a unique opportunity.

Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the offer comes as the Afghan air force is becoming more effective, and as special police and special operations forces are doubling in size.

"This all adds up to increased military pressure on the enemy, and that coupled with the diplomatic pressure on Pakistan and in support of the Afghan peace process and in the social pressure for peace is what gives us hope that this is an unprecedented moment," he said.

NATO Senior Civilian Representative Cornelius Zimmermann underlined that Kabul's offer has no strings attached and said that "in my time in Afghanistan, I have never heard or experienced such a bold move as the one by President Ghani."

He insisted that NATO is not leaving Afghanistan anytime soon, saying that the alliance's "presence will last as long as it takes to fulfil the conditions for a self-sustaining and stable Afghanistan, able to stand on its own feet."

For NATO, Zimmerman said, Ghani's proposal is "the best opportunity we have, so we are well advised to make good use of it."

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