KABUL, Afghanistan — In a blow to hopes for peace talks, the Taliban's reclusive leader warned Friday that a bilateral security pact allowing thousands of U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year will mean more fighting.
The Americans and NATO allies are winding down combat operations but want to leave a residual force to help train Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism operations amid fears government troops are ill-prepared to face a relentless insurgency and the security vacuum could pave the way for an al-Qaida resurgence in the country.
President Barack Obama has announced he wants to leave nearly 10,000 Americans in Afghanistan for two more years. The Afghan government has agreed in principle to a security agreement that would allow them to stay but the deal has yet to be signed. Both candidates vying to replace outgoing President Hamid Karzai have promised to sign it, but they are locked in a dispute over election results.
Mullah Mohammad Omar called on the candidates not to sign the agreement.
"We believe the war in Afghanistan will come to an end when all foreign invaders pull out of Afghanistan and a holy Islamic and independent regime prevails here. Presence of limited number of troops under whatever title it may be will mean continuation of occupation and the war," he said in a message issued ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The message was translated into Dari, Arabic, English and Pashto.
Violence continued Friday. Taliban insurgents halted minibuses in the western province of Ghor, identified 14 Shiite Hazara passengers, including three women, bound their hands, then shot them dead by the side of the road, an official said.
The buses were traveling from Kabul and carrying around 30 passengers, many who had gone to the capital to shop ahead of the holiday weekend, said the provincial governor, Sayed Anwar Rahmati. The dead included a couple who were engaged and two relatives travelling with them, Rahmati said, adding the other passengers were released.
The Taliban, like other Sunni extremist groups, view the country's minority Shiite community as apostates, and have targeted Hazaras in the past with suicide bombings and other attacks.
Mullah Omar's comments come as international forces already have largely moved to the background and let Afghan forces take the lead in the fighting, making it harder for the Taliban to argue that they are waging war against a foreign occupying force. Deadly attacks targeting Afghan policemen, soldiers and civilians have increased.
The Taliban's one-eyed chief reiterated his support for assaults on government officials and troops who are cooperating with the U.S.-led coalition, but he called on followers to take measures to prevent civilian casualties and to be friendly toward ordinary people "to win their hearts and minds."
He did not mention the peace process, which is virtually on hold anyway until the new president is chosen. The two candidates — former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai — are awaiting the results of an audit of all ballots cast after allegations of massive fraud in the June 14 runoff vote.
Mullah Omar also condemned Israeli airstrikes that have killed hundreds of Palestinians as Israel fights Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Hundreds of Afghan protesters took to the streets in Kabul on Friday to show solidarity with the Palestinians. They chanted slogans against Israel, the U.S. and the U.N., saying the world needs to do more to protect the innocent men and women of Gaza.