KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban are not involved in peace talks between an insurgent faction and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and will not agree to talks until Western troops are withdrawn from the country, a spokesman said on Tuesday.
Karzai’s office said on Monday he had held his first direct talks in Kabul with a senior delegation from Hezb-i-Islami, one of the three main insurgent groups in the country and rivals to the Taliban.
The meeting was an unprecedented success in Karzai’s efforts to reach out to insurgents this year, a crucial time when Washington is sending a “surge” of extra combat troops before planning to start withdrawing next year.
Although the talks appeared to be preliminary, the publicly acknowledged face-to-face meeting was a significant milestone: previous contacts with insurgents have been furtive and conducted through mediators, mostly overseas.
The Hezb-i-Islami team, which included the son-in-law of the group’s fugitive leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, brought a 15-point peace plan including a call for all foreign troops to withdraw this year, though a spokesman said the demands were negotiable.
A separate peace with Hezb-i-Islami could markedly change the balance of power on the ground in the east and northeast of the country where the group is mostly active.
But the main prize would be talks with the Taliban themselves, more powerful than at any time since they were driven from Kabul in 2001 by U.S.-backed Afghan militia.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said his movement, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the country’s name when it ruled from 1996-2001, had not altered its position: that no talks could be held until troops withdraw.
“The Islamic Emirate has a clear position. We have said this many, many times. There will be no talks when there are foreign troops on Afghanistan’s soil killing innocent Afghans on daily basis,” Mujahid said.
“If the representatives from Hezb-i-Islami are in Kabul for talks, it’s their choice,” he added.
TALIBAN ENCROACH ON HEZB-I-ISLAMI TURF
The Taliban, the biggest insurgent group, have their bases in the south, but operate throughout much of the country and have encroached on Hezb-i-Islmai turf in the northeast and east in recent months.
Taliban fighters clashed with Hezb-i-Islami militants in the north of the country two weeks ago, which the government said led some Hezb-i-Islami guerrillas to seek its protection.
Although direct contacts between the government and senior Taliban officials have been denied by both sides, Western officials say they believe indirect and lower-level contacts have taken place throughout eight years of war.
The outgoing U.N. mission chief in Kabul, Kai Eide, said last week he had held meetings with Taliban representatives over the past year, which ended abruptly this year when Pakistan arrested the number two Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Some Afghan officials have said the government had made contact with Baradar, and blame Islamabad for arresting him to ensure that it has leverage over any future talks.
Karzai’s spokesman has said the government had no “direct” contacts with Baradar, but declined to comment on whether it had had “indirect” contacts.