Kabul - The Taliban leadership is ready to negotiate peace with the United States right now if Washington indicates its willingness to provide a timetable for complete withdrawal, according to a former Afghan prime minister who set up a secret meeting between a senior Taliban official and a U.S. general two years ago.
They also have no problem with meeting the oft-repeated U.S. demand that the Taliban cut ties completely with Al-Qaeda.
Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, who was acting prime minister of Afghanistan in 1995-96, told IPS in an interview that a group of Taliban officials conveyed the organisation's position on starting peace negotiations to him in a meeting in Kabul a few days ago.
"They said once the Americans say 'we are ready to withdraw', they will sit with them," said Ahmadzai.
The former prime minister said Taliban officials made it clear that they were not insisting on any specific date for final withdrawal. "The timetable is up to the Americans," he said.
Ahmadzai contradicted a favourite theme of media coverage of the issue of peace negotiations on the war - that Mullah Mohammed Omar, head of the Taliban leadership council, has not been on board with contacts by Taliban officials with the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S.
He confirmed that Mullah Baradar, then second in command to Mullah Omar, had indeed had high-level contacts with officials in the Karzai government in 2009, as claimed by Karzai aides, before being detained by Pakistani intelligence in early 2010.
And contrary to speculation that Baradar's relationship with Mullah Omar had been terminated either by those contacts or by his detention, Ahmadzai said, "Baradar is still the top man," and "Mullah Omar's position on him hasn't changed."
Ahmadzai, who studied engineering at Colorado State University before joining the U.S.-sponsored mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, maintains close ties with Quetta Shura officials but has also enjoyed personal contacts with the U.S. military. He brokered a meeting between a senior Taliban leader and Brig. Gen. Edward M. Reeder, then commander of the Combined Special Forces Special Operations Army Component Command in Kabul in summer 2009.
The former prime minister's account of that meeting in the interview with IPS further documents the Taliban leadership's interest in entering into peace negotiations with the United States prior to the Barack Obama administration's decision to escalate U.S. military involvement sharply in 2009.
A senior Taliban leader told Reeder at the meeting that the insurgents had no problem with severing their ties to Al-Qaeda, but could not agree to U.S. demands for access to military bases.
Ahmadzai said he negotiated the meeting with the Taliban leadership in the spring of 2009, at the request of Reeder, who had just arrived in Kabul a few weeks earlier. The process took four months, he recalled, because the Taliban leadership had so many questions that had to be addressed.
The main question, of course, was what arrangements would be made for the Taliban representative's safety. In the end, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command facilitated the Taliban representative's travel into Kabul, Ahmadzai recalled.
The Taliban official who met with Reeder and Ahmadzai in Kabul was a member of the Taliban Quetta Shura (leadership council) who called himself Mullah Min Mohammed for security reasons, according to Ahmadzai.
The Quetta Shura representative complained to Reeder about the failure of the United States to follow up on a previous contact with a senior Taliban representative, according to Ahmadzai's account.
"Mullah Mohammed" recalled to Reeder that the Taliban had met two years earlier in southern Kandahar province with an unnamed U.S. official who had made two demands as the price for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan: an end to the Taliban's relations with Al-Qaeda and U.S. long-term access to three airbases in the country.
"We agreed to one but not to the other," the senior Taliban official was quoted by Ahmadzai as saying.
The Taliban leader explained that it had no trouble with the demand for cutting ties with Al-Qaeda, but that it would not agree to the U.S. retaining any military bases in Afghanistan – "not one metre", according to Ahmadzai's account.
The Quetta Shura representative then reproached the U.S. for having failed to make any response to the Taliban offer to cut the organisation's ties with Al-Qaeda.
"You haven't responded to us," he is said to have told Reeder. "You never told us yes or no."
The Taliban complaint suggested that the Quetta Shura leadership had been prepared to move into more substantive talks if the U.S. had indicated its interest in doing so.
Reeder, who has been commander of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg since July 2010, did not respond to an e-mail from IPS to the command's Public Affairs Office for comment on Ahmadzai's account of the meeting.
After the announcement of the major increase in troop deployment in Afghanistan, the Obama administration adopted a public posture that suggested the Taliban leadership had no reason to negotiate unless put under severe military pressure.
In light of the contacts between senior Taliban leaders and U.S. officials in 2007 and 2009, the Taliban clearly concluded that the United States would not negotiate with the Taliban except on the basis of accepting U.S. permanent military presence in Afghanistan.
After the 2009 meeting between Reeder and the Taliban leader, a number of reports indicated the Taliban leadership was not interested in negotiations with Washington.
Despite the apparent policy shift against seeking peace talks, the Taliban continued to signal to Washington that it was willing to exclude any presence for Al-Qaeda or other groups that might target the United States from Afghan territory.
Mullah Omar suggested that willingness in an unusual statement on the occasion of the Islamic holiday Eid in September 2009.
Then in early December, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the official title adopted by the Quetta Shura leadership for its political-military organisation – said in a statement posted on its website and circulated to Western news agencies that it was prepared to offer "legal guarantees" against any aggressive actions against other countries from its soil as part of a settlement with the United States.