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War-Weary Taliban Looking To Politics

Written by CBS News' Sami Yousafzai in Afghanistan, and Tucker Reals in London.



Six years after the U.S. military stormed into Afghanistan and easily swept aside the country's Taliban leadership, the militant Muslim group appears to be angling for a return to the world of politics.

A large proportion of the Taliban's 30-member Supreme Council is in favor of negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. They feel the time is right for a shift in the organization's primary goal - from endless war with U.S. and Afghan forces, to legitimized political power in large sections of the country.

President Karzai said Sunday that his administration was willing to negotiate with Taliban leaders, and for the first time since they were ousted from Kabul, Taliban leaders have responded favorably, albeit guardedly, to the offer.

Speaking to CBS News Monday via satellite phone, Taliban Spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said if Karzai's regime offers a face to face meeting, "we are ready to talk.

Ahmadi called Karzai's statement "political", but said they would "think about any serious offer for dialogue from the government in light of the principles of Islam and national interests of the country."

In turn, Karzai's spokesman told the Associated Press Tuesday: "We heard the Taliban announcement through the media. We are investigating it."

He said Taliban members who approached the government with a true desire to find a "solution for peace" would not be arrested.

Meanwhile a top Taliban commander, one of the 30 members of the Supreme Council, tells CBS News that most of the members believe the group is in a "strong position" to negotiate a deal that would see them take on administrative control of several provinces in southern and southeastern Afghanistan.

The commander, who spoke to CBS on the condition that he not be named, said it was, "the right time to consider dialogue" with Karzai.

Just weeks ago the Taliban scored a political victory, forcing the South Korean government to sit down and negotiate for the lives of 19 hostages taken in central Afghanistan.

Although South Korea conceded little in the end to win the group's release, it was a symbolic victory for the militants, who managed to function, on a practical level, as a political entity separate and independent from the government in Kabul.

Taliban leaders' shifting sentiments are being guided by influences from inside and outside the group. One of the most important is the increasing resentment expressed by ordinary Afghans in the areas controlled by the militants - people who have seen six years of relentless bloodshed on their doorsteps.

Militants have launched a record number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan this year. A massive blast killed at least 26 people on Monday, and another attack left as many as five dead Tuesday.

The attacks usually target Afghan police or soldiers, but civilians are regularly among the dead. Militants tell CBS News that fed-up family members have been complaining to local Taliban leaders, asking why the fighting is still necessary.

Internally, a majority of the Taliban's leadership are seeing the militant activities of the group as more of a problem than a solution. Various commanders tell CBS News the cost of facing an enemy like the United States military may be too great.

At least three of the Supreme Council's members have been killed, and cooperation with al Qaeda militants on the Pakistan side of the border can bring drastically increased and unwanted attention.

Though several still have links, and succumb to some al Qaeda influence, according to the same Taliban commander, there is only one member of the Supreme Council who still openly advocates strong ties to Osama bin Laden's terror organization.

Mullah Mansor Dadullah, brother of the group's slain former leader, is firmly against talks with the Karzai regime, and putting distance between the Taliban and the group now in the center of the U.S. crosshairs in the war on terror

Dadullah has a great deal of military power in Afghanistan, giving orders to about 120 subcommanders in several of the country's southern provinces, but his political clout on the council is waning.

The Taliban commander who spoke to CBS News says the council has warned Dadullah to tone down his pro-al Qaeda rhetoric. He's the only member of the council with a fulltime spokesman, and he's been asked to stop talking to the media.

Another senior Taliban member, who used to hold a cabinet post in the group's de facto government structure, tells CBS News that due to stepped up operations by Pakistani soldiers in the border region, the area may no longer provide "safe hideouts for the Taliban".

He also said it may be a good time to limit links with the al Qaeda and negotiate with "opponents in Afghanistan".

There is a deeply entrenched distrust by senior Taliban leaders - the vast majority of whom are Afghans - of their Pakistani counterparts. Many of the Taliban supporters on the Pakistani side of the border are loyal to Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, and generally more sympathetic to al Qaeda.

The former Taliban official, who still deals directly with the group's leadership, says he believes that "if we assured the world that we are not going to let al Qaeda use Afghan soil, we don't think the world, and Afghanistan, will consider us a threat."

Despite the indications of a growing cross-border rift among militants, CBS News' Farhan Bokhari reports a senior Pakistani official says it's too early to tell if the Taliban is actually ready to end its informal ties with al Qaeda.

"In the past as well there have been such reports of the Taliban searching for a new type of relationship with the government in Kabul. But frankly, there is nothing which I have seen to suggest that the Taliban will be willing to take such a step," he told Bokhari on condition of anonymity.

A senior western diplomat in Islamabad, who also asked not to be named, tells CBS News a Taliban effort to seek closer ties with the government in Kabul would not be unprecedented. "The world is full of examples where former foes have become friends and vice versa. But unless the U.S. gives its approval first, I just don't see how Karzai will be in a position to move on this issue on his own."

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