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BREAKING NEWS

Afghan president says he will oppose peace deal without his government

Afghan president says he will oppose peace deal without his government
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ARND WIEGMANN(Reuters)
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By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday that no peace deal between the Taliban and the United States could be finalised without involving his government as "the decision-maker".

Ghani's government has so far been shut out of the evolving peace talks between Taliban negotiators and U.S. envoys to end more than 17 years of war, with the hardline Islamist movement branding his government as a U.S. puppet.

His made his remarks in a television interview as Afghan opposition politicians, including his predecessor Hamid Karzai, meet Taliban representatives in Moscow.

"At the end of any peace deal, the decision-maker will be the government of Afghanistan," Ghani told TOLO News, the country's largest private television station.

"No power in the country can dissolve the government," he said, adding that he was ready to "stand and defend our country".

"Rest assured that no-one can push us aside," he said.

With both sides hailing progress in talks in Qatar last month, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is due to meet Taliban representatives there again on Feb. 25.

Ghani's comments are some of the most extensive since he met Khalilzad in Kabul last week following the last round of talks.

U.S. officials say any withdrawal is contingent on a ceasefire - something the Taliban insists on happening first - and that the movement must be prepared to enter talks with the Afghan government to help create a durable peace.

After two years of intensified attacks by the Taliban on the Afghan government, military and foreign forces, they now control or contest nearly half of the districts across Afghanistan.

A ceasefire and the withdrawal of thousands of U.S.-led NATO troops is on the table after Washington secured earlier assurances from the Taliban that they would not allow groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to attack the United States and its allies.

Western diplomats and security advisers believe a swift foreign pullout would put the stretched Afghan forces under severe strain.

"The Taliban said they ready to sever ties with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and this is a good development," Ghani said.

Shortly before the interview was broadcast, a U.S. general told a Senate hearing that the talks were in their early stages and the Afghan government would have to be part of any negotiated solution.

"I would characterize where we are in the process as very, very early in the process," U.S. General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, told a Senate hearing.

Votel also said that the United States would need to continue to support Afghan security forces financially even if U.S. troops withdrew.

The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission and a separate counter-terrorism effort largely directed at groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

Some 8,000 troops from 38 other countries also participate in Resolute Support.

(Writing by Greg Torode, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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