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Exclusive: Former Taliban see opening for talks

Two former high-ranking Taliban officials offer insight on how to progress.

In a March 22 interview with "60 Minutes," Obama was concise about the mission in Afghanistan: “Making sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies. That's our number one priority.”

This is something that the Taliban are more than willing to talk about, according to Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef.

"The United States has a right to guarantee its own security,” he said, in an interview at his home in a dusty Kabul suburb, where he is under house arrest.

After serving four years in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Zaeef was released and reconciled with the Afghan government.

“They have a right to ensure that there is no danger to them from Afghanistan,” Zaeef added in an interview that happened only after negotiating a cordon of officers from the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan’s internal security agency.

Mutawakil agrees that the U.S. has a legitimate interest in making sure that Afghanistan is not used as a base for attacks against America.

“That is the limit of their rights in this country. They do not have the right to impose democracy, nor to say to one group ‘you are on our side’ while telling another group ‘you must be killed,’” said Mutawakil, who surrendered in Kandahar to U.S. troops, according to the BBC in February 2002 and was later released.

The problem goes back to the very beginning of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, according to more than one savvy observer.

“The Taliban were fighting a civil war in 2001,” said Sardar Roshan, a former ambassador for the Afghan government in exile. “All of a sudden they were told they had destroyed New York.”

But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were the work of Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, insist Mutawakil and Zaeef.

“The United States interrogated many Taliban at Bagram and Guantanamo,” said Zaeef, who spent more than four and a half years in U.S. detention. “They never proved that a single Talib was involved in the attacks on New York and Washington.”

Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda and the architect of the 2001 attacks, had been widely viewed by Afghans as a thorn in the country's side for years after he was forced out of the Sudan and arrived here as an exile from his native Saudi Arabia in 1996.

After the attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in 1998, the United States demanded that the Taliban hand bin Laden over.

They failed to do so, turning themselves into an enemy regime that harbored anti-American terrorists.

According to Alex Strick van Linschoten, an expert on the Taliban who has spent much of the past four years conducting research in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, the problem was not merely the time-honored Afghan code of hospitality to a sanctuary seeker or an excess of fondness for their Saudi guest, but an insistence on the diplomatic protocol involved.

“The Taliban were asking that the United States give them some proof that Osama was involved in the bombings,” he said. “They would not respond to demands without evidence.”

Another complication was the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries: The United States had never recognized the Taliban regime, and so had no extradition treaty with it. So the Taliban refused to surrender bin Laden.

The U.S. countered by sending cruise missiles into Afghanistan.

In 2001, after bin Laden’s Al Qaeda hit New York and Washington in the worst attack on American territory since Pearl Harbor, the United States again demanded that the Taliban hand bin Laden over.

The response was the same, with far graver consequences for Afghanistan. After initial airstrikes in October 2001, the U.S. steadily increased its troop presence to 38,000, with a “surge” force of 17,000 more on the way.

“We Afghans are famous for our hospitality,” Mutawakil laughed. “But now we have such powerful guests that the host is in trouble.”

When the United States sent the Taliban packing in 2001, it brought back many members of the Northern Alliance, the loose grouping of fighters who had been all but defeated by the Taliban. Under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the alliance had been confined to a small sliver of territory.