Kabul (AFP) - The leader of the Taliban said Wednesday that the militants were committed to a landmark deal with the US, despite being accused of carrying out thousands of attacks in Afghanistan since it was signed.
In a rare message released ahead of the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan next week, Haibatullah Akhundzada urged Washington "not to waste" the opportunity offered by the deal to end America's longest war.
"The Islamic Emirate is committed to the agreement... and urges the other side to honour its own commitments and not allow this critical opportunity to go to waste," Akhundzada said in a statement, using the Taliban's name for Afghanistan.
After months of negotiations, the Taliban and US signed a deal in February which stipulates Washington will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by next year in return for security guarantees.
"I urge American officials to not afford anyone the opportunity to obstruct, delay and ultimately derail this internationally recognised bilateral agreement," the reclusive leader said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy who brokered the deal, said he heard a similar "commitment to the agreement" as he met with the Taliban's chief negotiator Mullah Baradar in Qatar.
"On violence, I told the Talibs violence by all sides must fall. Innocent Afghans have borne far too much and for too long the costs of this war," he wrote on Twitter.
Khalilzad, however, has earlier said that Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces outside of cities do not violate the agreement under which US troops are withdrawing.
- Pledging rights for women -
Akhundzada hails from the Taliban's traditional bastion of Kandahar, and was appointed head of the group after a US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in 2016.
Mansour had succeeded Mullah Omar, the one-eyed warrior-cleric who founded the group.
Akhundzada is a hardline religious scholar and a former head of the Taliban court system.
He outlined the political system he envisaged for Afghanistan after the exit of foreign troops.
"The objectives of our jihad... are freedom of our country and to establish an Islamic system," he said.
"Every male and female member of society shall be given their due rights."
The problem is the Taliban's interpretation of Islam and the rights it provides for.
During their previous rule in 1990s, the Taliban had implemented harsh Islamic punishments like public executions and amputations.
Men were forced to grow beards and women had to be fully covered when they were allowed outside. The extremists had also banned girls from school.
- Emboldened militants -
US President Donald Trump's administration has made it a priority to end America's war in Afghanistan.
The US-Taliban deal is also aimed at paving the way for the insurgents to hold direct peace talks with Kabul.
In a bid to ease the withdrawal of foreign forces, US officials have been pushing militant and government leaders to begin those negotiations.
The talks have stumbled, but the Afghan government was strengthened over the weekend by the announcement of a power-sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani and his former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who will lead negotiations with the Taliban.
Khalilzad arrived in Kabul on Wednesday and met Ghani in a bid to push the Afghan peace process forward.
The pair discussed the importance of "a ceasefire or reduction in violence before the start of direct talks," Ghani's office said.
Analysts say the Taliban have been emboldened by the deal with the US, and Afghan government officials have reported more than 3,800 attacks since it was signed, killing 420 civilians and wounding 906.
On an especially horrific day last week, gunmen raided a maternity hospital, killing dozens including mothers and infants, and carried out a suicide bombing at a funeral.
The Taliban denied involvement in the attacks, but President Ghani blamed them and the Islamic State (IS) group for the bloodshed.
The US said it believed IS was involved and hoping to scuttle peace moves.
Following the recent attacks the government ordered security forces to switch to an "offensive" posture against the Taliban.
The Taliban responded by vowing to increase attacks against government forces.
The United Nations has warned that the spike in violence has caused increased civilian casualties.