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KABUL (Reuters) - Washington wants security and peace in Afghanistan under its own terms as it eyes a long-term regional presence and only backs talks between Kabul and the Taliban to spread confusion among insurgents, an ex-Taliban diplomat said.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who once served as ambassador for the ousted Taliban government, said comments by NATO and U.S. officials that militants had recently opened contacts with Kabul were merely propaganda to divide Taliban leaders.
His remarks echo those from Taliban commanders who have dismissed negotiations and underscore the difficulty of bringing insurgents to the talks table while they stand by their long-held demand that foreign troops must leave Afghanistan.
"The fundamental problem, the basic problem is the ... occupation of Afghanistan. This is the real problem and the Americans want to ignore that," said Zaeef, the Taliban's envoy to Pakistan until the militants were removed in 2001.
"They are interested in peace on their own condition. To be safe, to be here ... and tell other countries 'do that' and they should do it," he said in an interview in his Kabul house.
With rising casualties among the foreign forces and sagging support in Western nations as the Afghan war enters its 10th year, Washington says it backs President Hamid Karzai's latest efforts to reach out to the Taliban commanders.
As its conditions or "red lines" for any peace talks, Washington says it wants the Taliban to renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda and accept Afghanistan's new constitution.
But analysts, former and current Taliban see those terms as tantamount to surrender to the United States, which leads the Afghan war and forms the bulk of the 150,000 foreign troops deployed in Afghanistan.
Zaeef said he believed the United States sought to secure its own interests in a mineral-rich region where China is rising as an economic power, Russia is re-emerging as a key actor and Iran is chafing against U.S. pressure over its nuclear program.
Zaeef spent several years in the U.S. jail in Guantanamo Bay after the fall of the Taliban. He has refused to sit on the 70-member High Peace Council appointed by Karzai for talks with the Taliban, partly because of conditions set on negotiations.
Wearing a black turban, like many of the Taliban, Zaeef said he has told Western diplomats and officials that he believes Afghanistan and the region at large do not want a U.S. presence in the country.
"Who will pay the price? The Afghans will be the casualties. This is the real problem. We don't want to be sacrificed for others," he said.
Zaeef, who has remained in touch with his former comrades in the past by telephone, said comments by NATO and U.S. officials about Taliban contacts were untrue and Washington wanted to use them to show to the world that it was interested in Afghan peace.
Secrecy was fundamental to any form of talks and revealing details in the initial phase could risk destroying the whole peace process, he said.
"I am sure... nothing has happened and just they want to confuse the Taliban, confuse the nation and create problems among the people," Zaeef asid. "This is just some kind of propaganda."
Editing by Patrick Markey and Ron Popeski