The Taliban has said it does not want to monopolise power, but insists there will be no peace in Afghanistan until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed.
A spokesman for the group, Suhail Shaheen, laid out the insurgents’ stance on what should come next with the country on a precipice as the last US and Nato soldiers leave.
The Taliban has swiftly captured territory in recent weeks, seized strategic border crossings and is threatening a number of provincial capitals – advances that come as the last US and Nato soldiers leave Afghanistan.
This week, the top US military officer, Gen Mark Milley, told a Pentagon press conference that the Taliban has “strategic momentum”, and did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover.
But he said it this is not inevitable. “I don’t think the end game is yet written,” he said.
Memories of the Taliban’s last time in power some 20 years ago, when it enforced a harsh brand of Islam that denied girls an education and barred women from work, have stoked fears of their return among many.
Afghans who can afford it are applying by the thousands for visas to leave Afghanistan, fearing a violent descent into chaos. The US-Nato withdrawal is more than 95% complete and due to be finished by August 31.
Mr Shaheen said the Taliban will lay down its weapons when a negotiated government acceptable to all sides in the conflict is installed in Kabul and Mr Ghani’s government is gone.
“I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power because any governments who (sought) to monopolise power in Afghanistan in the past, were not successful governments,” said Mr Shaheen, apparently including the Taliban’s own five-year rule in that assessment.
“So we do not want to repeat that same formula.”
But he was also uncompromising on the continued rule of Mr Ghani, calling him a warmonger and accusing him of using speech on the Islamic holy day of Eid-al-Adha to promise an offensive against the Taliban.
Mr Shaheen dismissed Mr Ghani’s right to govern, resurrecting allegations of widespread fraud that surrounded his 2019 election win.
After that vote, both Mr Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president. After a compromise deal, Mr Abdullah is now number two in the government and heads the reconciliation council.
Mr Ghani has often said he will remain in office until new elections can determine the next government. His critics – including ones outside the Taliban – accuse him of seeking only to keep power, causing splits among government supporters.
Last weekend, Mr Abdullah headed a high-level delegation to the Qatari capital Doha for talks with Taliban leaders. It ended with promises of more talks, as well as greater attention to the protection of civilians and infrastructure.
Mr Shaheen called the talks a good beginning. But he said the government’s repeated demands for a ceasefire while Mr Ghani stays in power were tantamount to demanding a Taliban surrender.
“They don’t want reconciliation, but they want surrendering,” he said.
Before any ceasefire, there must be an agreement on a new government “acceptable to us and to other Afghans”, he said. Then “there will be no war”.
Mr Shaheen said under this new government, women will be allowed to work, go to school, and participate in politics, but will have to wear the hijab, or headscarf.
He said women will not be required to have a male relative with them to leave their home, and that Taliban commanders in newly occupied districts have orders that universities, schools and markets operate as before, including with the participation of women and girls.
However, there have been repeated reports from captured districts of the Taliban imposing harsh restrictions on women, even setting fire to schools.
One gruesome video that emerged appeared to show Taliban personnel killing captured commandos in northern Afghanistan.
Mr Shaheen said some Taliban commanders had ignored the leadership’s orders against repressive and drastic behaviour and that several have been put before a Taliban military tribunal and punished, though he did provide specifics.
He contended the video was fake, a splicing of separate footage.
Mr Shaheen said there are no plans to make a military push on Kabul and that the Taliban has so far “restrained” itself from taking provincial capitals.
But he warned it could, given the weapons and equipment its forces have acquired in newly captured districts. He contended that the majority of the Taliban’s battlefield successes came through negotiations, not fighting.
“Those districts which have fallen to us and the military forces who have joined us … were through mediation of the people, through talks,” he said. “They (did not fall) through fighting … it would have been very hard for us to take 194 districts in just eight weeks.”
The Taliban controls about half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centres, and while it has yet to capture any of the 34 provincial capitals, it is pressuring about half of them, Gen Milley said.
In recent days, the US has carried out air strikes in support of beleaguered Afghan government troops in the southern city of Kandahar, around which the Taliban has been amassing, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Thursday.
The rapid fall of districts and the seemingly disheartened response by Afghan government forces have prompted US-allied warlords to resurrect militias with a violent history.
For many Afghans weary of more than four decades of war, that raises fears of a repeat of the brutal civil war in the early 1990s in which those same warlords battled for power.
“You know, no-one – no-one – wants a civil war, including me,” said Mr Shaheen.
He also repeated Taliban promises aimed at reassuring Afghans who fear the group.
Washington has promised to relocate thousands of US military interpreters. Mr Shaheen said they had nothing to fear from the Taliban and denied threatening them.
But, he added, if some want to take asylum in the West because Afghanistan’s economy is so poor, “that is up to them”.
He also denied that the Taliban has threatened journalists and Afghanistan’s nascent civil society, which has been targeted by dozens of killings over the past year.
The so-called Islamic State group has taken responsibility for some, but the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for most of the killings while the Taliban in turn accuses the Afghan government of carrying out the killings in order to defame the group.
Mr Shaheen said journalists, including those working for western media outlets, have nothing to fear from a government that includes the Taliban.
“We have not issued letters to journalists (threatening them), especially to those who are working for foreign media outlets. They can continue their work even in the future,” he said.