KANDAHAR: A soldier walks near the destroyed section of a bridge connecting Kandahar city and Arghandab district, near Kandahar on Wednesday after a bomb blast. – AFP

KABUL: The Taleban rejected a proposal by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to hold elections later this year, after months of peace talks between the two warring sides have made little progress. Although he hasn’t made details public, Ghani will announce the election plan at a stakeholder conference in Turkey next month, according to two government officials. The move is likely an attempt to undercut a US proposal-supported by Russia-for the formation of an interim government involving the Taliban to rule the country once the last US troops withdraw.

“The government will go to Turkey with a plan for an early election which is a fair plan for the future of Afghanistan,” one senior official told AFP. The Taleban immediately rejected the proposal. “Such processes (elections) have pushed the country to the verge of crisis in the past,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said of Ghani’s plan. “They are now talking about a process that has always been scandalous,” he told AFP, saying any decision on the country’s future must be hammered out in ongoing talks between the two sides.

“We will never support it.” The United States is due to withdraw the last of its troops by May 1 under a deal hammered out with the Taleban last year, although President Joe Biden said earlier this month the deadline would be “tough” to meet. That deal also paved the way for the Taleban and Afghan government to negotiate a peace plan and hammer out an agreement on how the country should be ruled, but those talks-held since September in Doha, Qatar-have made little headway.

Afghanistan has a troubled history at the polls, with elections beset by rampant fraud, low turnout and insurgent violence. The Taleban’s response comes hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NATO that Washington is still weighing up whether to withdraw its troops by the May 1 deadline.

The Afghan government is keen to keep US forces in the country for as long as possible for the vital air cover they provide, with violence raging in recent months. The United States, Russia and other stakeholders however want to see some form of transitional government take power in Afghanistan, but Ghani has insisted leaders can only be chosen at the ballot box. Having made enormous gains on the battleground, the Taleban appear to have little to gain from either strategy.

Meanwhile, the United States vowed to protect progress made in Afghanistan on women’s rights over the past 20 years, as it pushes for a transitional government in Kabul that would include the Taleban. “We must do more to support the women and girls of Afghanistan,” the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the UN Security Council during a debate on Afghanistan. “Any agreement must preserve their gains if Afghanistan wants to ensure the international community’s continued political and financial support. We will not give an inch on this point,” the ambassador said.

President Joe Biden is weighing whether to respect a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of the last US troops in Afghanistan as per an agreement reached by the administration of Donald Trump and the Taliban insurgents. US diplomats have warned that the Taliban could make quick territorial gains if the US troops withdraw completely.

The US and other countries are pressing the Kabul government and the Taleban to make progress in peace talks that are struggling to make headway. A meeting was held last week in Moscow and another is planned for early April in Turkey in a bid to relaunch a negotiation process that began in Qatar. The United States has presented the two sides with a draft plan that calls for the formation of a transitional government that includes the Taleban. So far the Kabul government has shown little enthusiasm for this idea. – AFP