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Taliban takes a softer stance on rights

Group no longer asks total power in Afghanistan

Taliban militants pledged changes that included allowing girls to attend school and protecting other rights for women.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Taliban militants pledged changes that included allowing girls to attend school and protecting other rights for women.

KABUL — Taliban representatives at a French conference did not insist on total power in Afghanistan and pledged to grant rights to women that the militant Islamist group itself brutally suppressed in the past, according to a Taliban statement received Sunday.

The pledges emerged from a rare meeting last week involving Taliban and Kabul government representatives.

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The less strident substance and tone came in a speech delivered at the conference. The French hosts described it as a discussion among Afghans rather than peace negotiations.

It was hard to determine whether the softer line taken by the Taliban representatives reflected a real shift in policy or a salvo in the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of Afghans.

The speech said that a new constitution would protect civil and political rights of all citizens. It promised that women would be allowed to choose husbands, own property, attend school, and seek work, rights denied them during Taliban rule, which ended with the 2001 US invasion.

The speech was delivered by two Taliban officials, Mawlawi Shahbuddin Dilawar and Muhammad Naeem at the conference held Thursday and Friday. It was released Sunday by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

‘‘We are not looking to monopolize power. We want an all-Afghan inclusive government,’’ the speech said.

Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government welcomed such talks but did not expect them to bridge the gap between the warring sides.

The United States started to embrace the idea of peace talks after President Obama took office, but discussions stalled in recent years, despite the formation of an Afghan government council tasked with reaching out to the Taliban and the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar.

‘‘The peace initiative is a process, and one or two or three meetings are not going to solve the problems. But we are hopeful for the future,’’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said. He said the government’s preconditions for the talks with the Taliban have not changed: a cease-fire, recognition of the Afghan constitution, cutting ties with international terrorists, and agreeing to respect the rights of Afghan citizens including women and children.

The Taliban speech reiterated the group’s own longtime policies, declaring that the current constitution was ‘‘illegitimate because it is written under the shadow’’ of American B-52 planes and that the Taliban remained the legitimate government of the country, a reference to the US-led campaign that drove the Taliban from power.

It also called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and said a 2014 national election was ‘‘not beneficial for solving the Afghan quandary’’ because it would take place while the country was still under foreign occupation.

Most NATO forces are scheduled to be withdrawn by 2014. The Kabul government and its international backers hope that a peace deal can be brokered with the Taliban and other militant groups before the pullout.

NATO still has more than 100,000 troops, including 66,000 US soldiers, on the ground. The United States has yet to determine how big a force it will keep in Afghanistan after 2014.

‘‘The occupation must be ended as a first step, which is the desire of the entire nation,’’ the speech said.

The conference was also attended by the Hezb-e-Islami group, which is allied with the Taliban, and political opponents of President Hamid Karzai, whom the Taliban regard as a puppet of Washington.

Obama will decide in the coming weeks how many American troops to bring home from Afghanistan next year. A major factor in his decision will be the question of how successful US troops have been in preparing the Afghans to secure their country.

The president is scheduled to meet with Karzai in Washington in early January. Their talks will focus on troop withdrawal and on what the US military’s role will be in Afghanistan after 2014.

There have been calls in Congress for Obama to increase the size of a planned drawdown of US forces before the end of summer 2013, when the Afghan military is supposed to take the lead in security across the country.

Karzai also has suggested he wants the drawdown accelerated. ‘‘We are working to make this transition of security happen sooner,’’ he said last week.

But too large a pullout too soon could undermine the fight against the Taliban insurgency if Afghan forces are not fully prepared.

It is widely thought that General John Allen, the top military commander in Afghanistan, and his senior staff want to keep a large force in place for the summer fighting season, before international forces move into an entirely back-up and training role.

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