KABUL If the West is serious about wanting to talk to the Taliban about a peace deal it must set a firm timetable for withdrawing troops and move to take the top leaders off a terrorism blacklist, an Afghan mediator said.
Washington and its allies have been mapping out the contours of an Afghanistan exit strategy, with some top U.S. generals and Western officials holding out the possibility of an eventual peace deal with insurgents as a key to a withdrawal.
On Thursday, a major conference in London on Afghanistan will lay out a target to start handing security over to Afghan forces by early 2011, a draft communique has shown.
Arsala Rahmani, a former minister under the Taliban who has mediated between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders, said both sides are definitely open to serious talks, although his mediation efforts have been on hold since last summer.
"(Withdrawal) is not only the demand of the Taliban and the opposition, but also of the whole nation that the presence of foreigners who are here has to be legalised," said Rahmani.
"It certainly will have a big impact if they set a (withdrawal) timetable and specify their goals as to why they have come here," Rahman told Reuters in an interview.
The United Nations also said this week that five former Taliban officials had been taken off a sanctions list, something Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been pushing for as well as his plan to reintegrate Taliban foot soldiers.
These tentative measures are unlikely to be enough to bring the Taliban to the table, said Rahmani, who has established contact for Karzai with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and another key pro-Taliban commander, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar.
The U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke has recently said removing Omar from a number of international criminal fugitive lists was not an option, and Karzai's new reintegration plan was not a prelude to Taliban talks.
That initiative has been touted by the West and Karzai as potentially a key step towards peace. It will try to encourage low-level Taliban fighters to lay down arms and rejoin society in return for jobs.
The Taliban on Wednesday condemned the reintegration scheme and the conference as a "trick".
The reintegration plan, which will be funded by the West and led by the Afghan government, forms part of the latest efforts by Washington and its allies to build a foundation for the start of a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011.
Rahmani warned the plan could dent the long-term prospects for peace. Critics have already said it risks encouraging corruption and that the West and Karzai are unlikely to be able to build trust if they are trying to buy off foot soldiers while talking to the insurgency's leadership.
The Taliban are nonetheless likely to push for a full withdrawal schedule and for their top leaders like Omar and Hekmatyar to be struck off criminal lists.
"This is very important. As long as they are on the blacklist ... they cannot take part in the negotiations. This is our first demand that the blacklist will have to removed," he said.
"There is no other way. If the contact is not established with the leadership, then efforts of talks will not bear fruit."
Omar is wanted by the United States and has a $10 million bounty on his head. For now, the idea of engaging him is totally out of the question for Washington.
Karzai has long said talking to the Taliban was necessary as part of efforts to end the insurgency.
Dialogue has stalled since the presidential elections in August last year and the political crisis which followed, but efforts might re-start after the London conference.
Initial, trust-building talks between Kabul and the Taliban are a real possibility, Rahmani said, but both sides would then need to negotiate conditions.
Rahmani also said he saw a "major shift of policy" on the part of Pakistan towards facilitating talks between Karzai's government and the militant groups.
"This revives hope and increases the chance of negotiations," he said, adding trilateral talks between Pakistani, Turkish, and Afghan leaders in Istanbul this week were a good sign.
(Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Paul Tait)