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Taliban might be signaling softer approach

KABUL, Afghanistan — After years of deriding Afghanistan’s government and army as corrupt tools of Western occupiers, the Taliban have begun publicly airing a softer vision for the country’s future, with senior insurgent leaders saying the militants are willing to govern alongside other Afghan factions and even to adopt the current U.S.-financed army as their own.

That message was delivered over the past few days by Taliban envoys during private meetings with Afghan officials and opposition politicians near Paris, according to officials close to the talks, and the softer approach has been echoed in recent interviews with Taliban figures loyal to the group’s nominal leader, Mullah Omar. Together, it is the furthest that the Taliban’s senior leadership has gone to express in some official way that the group would be willing to operate as a mainstream Afghan political faction rather than aiming to return as conquering rulers after the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014.

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But with the Taliban there are always questions.

The group is increasingly divided by power struggles, according to some Western officials and Afghans close to the Taliban, and there has sometimes seemed to be a disconnect between conciliatory statements from the top and the aggression of field commanders. As well, Afghan and U.S. officials trying to open peace talks with the Taliban have long struggled with the question of whether any offer of compromise could be seen as legitimate or just tactical maneuvering to gain public support.

Still, the new statements offer the tantalizing prospect of a Taliban leadership that is ready to talk, even if many of its aims are out of line with the Afghan government and its Western allies.

That willingness may be in part because of a still-unfolding feud at the group’s top levels, according to recent interviews with a senior Taliban commander and another Afghan man close to the group. Those two men, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that the Taliban’s hard-line military commander, Mullah Abdul Quyyum Zakir, a former detainee at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, is being pushed aside in favor of more moderate rivals.

Zakir is seen as a fighter with little vision for finding a way to peacefully end the war, and he faces growing criticism over a series of setbacks in recent years at the hands of coalition forces whose raids are said to have cut deeply into the ranks of the group’s field commanders.

Many of the surviving field commanders have openly complained that Zakir is unwilling or unable to aid their fight, the two men said. As a group, those lower-level figures still hold sway in the Taliban: their unhappiness at learning the Taliban’s leadership was engaged in a nascent peace process with the United States this year helped scuttle that effort.

Vying to replace Zakir is the Taliban’s logistics chief, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, who also serves as Omar’s second deputy. He is considered a relative moderate within the movement, the men said.

In one indication that Mansour holds the upper hand, it was a pair of his loyalists — Shahabuddin Delawar and Muhammad Naim — who represented the Taliban at the conference outside Paris on Thursday and Friday, said the Afghan man close to the Taliban.

At the conference, and in interviews, Taliban officials offered a vision of a Taliban ready to govern again, but in harmony with the current Afghan government structure, even if they still oppose President Hamid Karzai and his allies. The senior Taliban official said, for instance, that the militants would be willing to offer a general amnesty to those who have fought against them, allowing the continuation of the current army and national police force that the United States has spent $39 billion to build and supply. The militants also envision retaining many of the government institutions the West put in place.

In an obvious attempt to answer some of the harshest criticism of the group’s brutal rule from 1996 through 2001, the envoys said that in a new Taliban-led government, women would have the chance to go to school in ‘‘an Islamic way,’’ according to the text of a speech the envoys delivered in France that the Taliban sent to news organizations on Saturday.

The senior Taliban official, in a recent interview, said the shift had the backing of Omar and it reflected a growing understanding among the movement’s leaders that as Afghanistan has changed, so must they.

‘'We realize we cannot run Afghanistan without the support of educated people, and we will not be tough as we were,’’ the senior Taliban official said.

But persuading Afghans — especially those of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic groups who suffered heavily at the Taliban’s hands — that the group might abandon its autocratic and brutal ways is a tall order. Gen. Atiqullah Baryalai, a prominent member of the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban in the 1990s and that now makes up the core of Afghanistan’s political opposition, characterized the Taliban’s overtures as ‘‘propaganda.’’

Although he said it was positive that the Taliban were showing a willingness to talk, he added: ‘‘I don’t think the Taliban are honest with what they said there in Paris. It is more about publicity, and about avoiding progress.’’

The Taliban do appear willing to go only so far in reaching out to current rivals. In the speech delivered in France, the Taliban envoys bluntly declared: ‘‘The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’’ — the Taliban’s formal name for itself — ‘‘is a legitimate fact. It is still the legitimate government.’’

As well, some of the group’s central demands still appear to be no-go propositions for Karzai’s government and U.S. officials. The Taliban still demand that all Western military forces, even advisers, leave Afghanistan after the formal end of the Western military mission in 2014. The group also demands that the country’s constitution be rewritten along strictly Islamic lines. The current constitution recognizes Islam as the primary arbiter of the country’s laws, and Afghan and U.S. officials have said they are willing only to see it amended, not rewritten.

The Taliban also appeared to reiterate their refusal to negotiate with Karzai’s government, and they said that they would consider the scheduled elections in 2014 meaningless because the country would still be under foreign occupation.

‘‘These elections, laws and administrative affairs were designed based on foreigners’ demands,’’ according to the envoys’ statement.

But, at the same time, it does appear that the Taliban are backing off a demand that they negotiate solely with the United States, and they appear increasingly open to working with other political groups to run the country.

‘'Mullah Omar has frequently insisted that we do not seek a monopoly on political power, and we want a government of all Afghans in our beloved country,’’ the Taliban statement said.

There was no immediate reaction from the Karzai administration to Saturday’s statement. A senior Western official who works in Kabul said that the Taliban ‘‘do seem like they are inching toward where the international community and the Afghan government would like to see them.’’ But, the official cautioned, ‘‘I think it is always smart to not be too optimistic. This is a slow process.’’

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