KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The leader of the Afghan Taliban said Wednesday his movement poses no threat to minorities or other countries, and that it will bring peace and economic development to the country if foreign forces withdraw.
Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah issued the surprisingly moderate statement in honor of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. It was not clear whether it signaled a major change by the insurgent group.
From 1996 until 2001, the Taliban ruled according to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Women were barred from education and largely confined to their homes, Shiites and other minorities were persecuted, and the militants hosted Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Akhunzadah says the Taliban now believe in an "inclusive and representative system," and want a "free, independent and progressive" Afghanistan.
"The main obstacle in the way of peace is the occupation. Peaceful solution of the Afghan issue is the main pillar of the policy of the Islamic Emirate, should the occupation come to an end," he said in the statement. "To this end, the political office has been tasked to find a peaceful solution."
The Taliban use the term "Islamic Emirate" to refer to themselves as a government in exile.
Akhunzadah also encouraged businesses to invest in the country and help develop its infrastructure, saying the Taliban supported such efforts in the areas under their control.
"The business community should make investment in the country to end the unemployment and save our countrymen from turning to dangerous immigration, hard work and deviation," he said.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks across the country since the U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat mission in 2014, switching to a support and counterterrorism role. The attacks have killed scores of Afghan forces as well as civilians.
In a speech earlier this month outlining his new strategy for the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, U.S. President Donald Trump said that at some point in the future it may be possible to reach "a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban," but that "nobody knows if or when that will ever happen."
"America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field," he added.