Karzai's Taleban talks raise spectre of civil war warns former spy chief

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Afghanistan risks fracturing along bloody ethnic lines if President Hamid Karzai continues misguided efforts to reach out to the Taleban, the country's former spymaster has warned.

In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman in his mountain bolt hole, Amrullah Saleh compared the Taleban to Cambodia's Khmer Rouge and accused the government of being "ultra soft" on the brutal, mediaeval insurgents.

"If we want to reconcile with Taleban, or persuade the Taleban to reconcile with the current system, the very worst way is the one the government of Afghanistan has chosen," he said.

Mr Karzai named 68 people charged with negotiating a settlement on Tuesday, after a tearful appeal for peace in which he begged the insurgents to lay down arms.

His High Peace Council includes warlords, a former civil war president, at least two well-known opium barons and just eight women. In June, the president welled up calling for his "dear Taleb brothers" to come home.

"These soft policies have demoralised the people of Afghanistan and it portrays the Taleban as the only winning side," Mr Saleh said, as he sat on a verandah surrounded by fruit orchards, only accessible via a footbridge over the roaring Panjshir river.

The former head of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) worked with MI6 and the CIA from 2004 until last June, when he resigned after "losing the confidence" of Mr Karzai.

He then spent weeks touring northern Afghanistan, building grass roots support for a political movement before joining forces with leading opposition politician Dr Abdullah Abdullah. Both men served under Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary Northern Alliance commander who was killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers two days before the 11 September 200 attacks on the US.

Dr Abdullah claimed the Taleban see Mr Karzai's tears as weakness.

Civil rights groups fear the rush to make peace will undo precious gains in areas like women's rights. Yet with America due to start withdrawing troops in July 2011, few powerbrokers see any alternatives to talks and most are manoeuvering for a post-Nato environment. When Russian troops left in 1989 more than a million people were killed in an ethnic civil war.

"Negotiations are fraught with risks but there few other options," said Harvard analyst Matt Waldman."Counter-insurgency is not succeeding and transition to Afghan forces will take far longer than anticipated."

General David Petraeus, the commander of US and Nato forces, said senior insurgents had already reached out to Mr Karzai, while Nato's top civilian, Ambassador Mark Sedwill said talks were at an embryonic stage.

Many of Mr Karzai's former allies, particularly those from the north, have begun distancing themselves from the government and their rhetoric has grown increasingly warlike.

"The black curtain which was rolled back after 9/11 is spreading again," Mr Saleh said. "For Nato it is a matter of some casualties, resources, public opinion, their global agenda. For us it is a matter of our very practical life: It is our honour, our dignity, our history, our values, it is our very basic right of life, which needs to be defended."

The former US Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwell, has led calls to partition Afghanistan, with an independent, ethnically Pashtun-dominated south - where the insurgency is currently strongest - and a northern and western section of mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras.

Asked if he thought partition was a possibility, Mr Saleh said he had been "approached by those who think out of the box". "My answer is this," he said. "The very survival of our nation is now a priority."

Washington has said it supports talks with insurgents prepared to accept the constitution and renounce ties to al-Qaeda.

"As far as I understand the Taleban at leadership level are not different from al-Qaeda," Mr Saleh said. "The Taleban at grass roots level, yes. They are not directly linked to al-Qaeda. If we create a political context for grassroots Taleban, for community Taleban, for provincial Taleban, I am not against that. What I am against is sending an airplane to the Quetta Shura (in Pakistan] and bringing them to Kabul as national leaders."

Mr Saleh has long been an outspoken critic of Pakistan's Intelligence Service (ISI), which he insists finances and directs terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan.

"The threat is Taleban, al-Qaeda, Pakistan," he said. Without more "kitchen work" to lay the foundations for successful talks he warned reconciliation would be a disaster because "you actually speak to a Pakistani Colonel, not to an Afghan Mullah".

"I am not anti peace and I am not anti reconciliation," he said. "I am against the way it is being formulated today."