The Taliban's former chief spokesman has revealed that top-level talks are being held between the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and key lieutenants of the former Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
His disclosure that the Taliban "cabinet in exile" is engaged in negotiations appeared to contradict the statement to Parliament yesterday by Gordon Brown that hardline Taliban leaders would be isolated from talks over the future of Afghanistan.
Mr Brown confirmed the report in The Independent yesterday that it was time for the Karzai government to engage Taliban fighters in talks as part of a shift in strategy for winning the support of the Afghan people. But he insisted there would be no negotiations with the hardline leaders of the insurgency.
"Our aim is to isolate and eradicate the Taliban insurgency, and to isolate the leadership," said Mr Brown. "We are not negotiating with the leadership, but we want to support President Karzai in his efforts at reconciliation. If he is successful in bringing across those members of the insurgency who then declare that they will give up fighting and support democracy and be part of the system, then these are efforts at reconciliation that are important to the future of the whole country."
Mr Brown gave the impression that only rank-and-file members of the Taliban would be involved. However, Mullah Mohammad Is'haq Nizami, the former spokesman for the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, said he has been relaying messages from Kabul to insurgent commanders in Pakistan for months.
Mullah Nizami, who also ran the regime's radio station, said Mr Karzai was trying to isolate Mullah Omar by wooing his lieutenants in the Quetta Shura, a council of elders in neighbouring Pakistan, which controls insurgents in Kandahar and Helmand. He said: "Karzai is trying to get the 18 people in the Quetta Shura. If he succeeds it will be a defeat for Mullah Omar. The Taliban and the government are tired of fighting and they want to negotiate.
"We are trying to find a way to talk to the government officially, to find a solution to the problems they are both facing."
When Mr Brown visited Afghanistan on Monday, Mr Karzai admitted he had met a number of senior Taliban commanders in person to negotiate a mass defection.
Mullah Nizami, once a close friend of Mullah Omar's, fled to Pakistan in 2001 when the Taliban regime collapsed. But he returned to Kabul earlier this year under an ongoing reconciliation programme, in an effort to open talks.
He said he relays messages to a number of prominent ex-Taliban figures, including the former Supreme Court chief justice, Maulvi Noor Mohammad Saqib, and the former minister for repatriation, Haji Abdul Raqib.
"These are talks about talks," said one senior Nato official. "It might not be the beginning of the end, but it's the end of the beginning. It's not official. It's representatives of representatives, like the role the Church played at the start of the Northern Ireland peace process." British diplomats are cautiously optimistic about the talks. They see negotiations as part of the solution. American officials fear the idea will be "radioactive" to voters back home.
A senior presidential aide said the Taliban was divided. He said: "They are tired of fighting. They want a better life. We need to find ways to guarantee they will be safe if they come back and there will be no revenge."
It is understood talks will continue "under the table" until the two sides can agree something to warrant a public announcement. "The Taliban want to take part in government," said Mullah Nazimi. "They want sharia law, and they want the withdrawal of international forces. But not at once."
The Taliban have also insisted the UN scraps its blacklist which requires member states to freeze the assets and restrict the movement of 142 former Taliban officials, including Mullah Omar, before negotiations officially start.
Mr Brown also used his statement signalling a shift in strategy from war-fighting to nation-building to attack Nato allies for their failure to provide more support for the security of the country. He revealed Nato chiefs will be seeking more offers of men, equipment or cash from countries that have failed to provide support for Afghanistan so far at a Nato meeting in Edinburgh tomorrow.
Lord Ashdown is expected to be announced as the UN super-envoy to Afghanistan shortly, to act as a co-ordinator for future developments with the Karzai government. He will be overseeing the three-point plan announced by the Prime Minister for security, reconciliation and economic development.
Mr Brown announced the British taxpayer will be providing 450m in aid between 2009 and 2012, in addition to 490m already spent over six years for rebuilding the country. Aid is also to be targeted at farmers to try to stop them producing poppy harvests for the illegal heroin trade.
The Taliban "spin doctor" Mullah Mohammad Is'haq Nizami ran Afghanistan's state radio station, Voice of Sharia, until 2001 when the regime fell. The station mainly broadcast religious texts and hardline sermons and poetry. The Taliban outlawed most music. He fled to Pakistan in November 2001, during the US-led invasion, but continued to act as chief spokesman for the movement's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Mullah Omar, the one-eyed "commander of the faithful", rarely agreed to meet non-Muslims, leaving much of the regime's reputation in Mullah Nizami's hands. In Pakistan, Mullah Nizami ran an underground Taliban magazine, called Sirek [Shine], and he continued to meet exiles. He returned to Afghanistan in June under a reconciliation programme. Since his return, he claims the government has reneged on a promise to give him money and a job.