KABUL (Reuters) -- One of Afghanistan's main insurgent groups is ready to make peace and act as a "bridge" to the Taliban, if Washington fulfills plans to start pulling out troops next year, a negotiator for the group said today.
The remarks from a representative of Hezb-e Islami, were the first time insurgents have suggested they could be satisfied by a timetable unveiled by President Barack Obama in December.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai acknowledged this week that he had met a delegation from Hezb-e Islami, his first direct contact with one of the three main factions fighting against his government and foreign troops.
In a wide-ranging interview at a Kabul hotel, Hezb-e Islami negotiator Mohammad Daoud Abedi told Reuters the decision to present a peace plan was taken as a direct response to a speech by Obama in December, when the U.S. president pledged 30,000 extra troops but announced a mid-2011 target to start a pullout.
"There is a formula: 'No enemy is an enemy forever, no friend is a friend forever,' " Abedi said. "If that's what the international community with the leadership of the United States of America is planning -- to leave -- we better make the situation honorable enough for them to leave with honor."
Talks between Hezb-e Islami and Karzai appear to be at a preliminary stage, but the public acknowledgement of the meeting is a major milestone. The group has presented a 15-point plan, including a demand that foreign troops begin withdrawing in July this year and pullout completely within six months.
Abedi stressed that the timetable in the plan was flexible, and indicated the rebels could be satisfied with Obama's target of mid-2011 to start withdrawing -- provided preparations for the pullout began sooner to demonstrate Washington was sincere.
"First of all, this is not written in stone and it's not the verse of the Koran, not to be changed. This is a starting point," he said of the group's demand for withdrawal this year.
"If we agree on this departure date: OK, the U.S. will leave. Give us a timeframe. They have said 18 months," he said.
"So if we come to an agreement, and preparations are actually taking place...that is considered a positive step. That is considered that the U.S. really means withdrawal. Because right now, there is a problem of trust between both sides."
Concrete preparations for withdrawal, such as moving U.S. troops out of cities and back into bases, and turning some provinces over to the control of Afghan security forces, should take place within six months, Abedi said.
U.S. officials say any withdrawal will be gradual, at a speed that will depend on conditions on the ground.
Abedi said Obama's mixed message -- more troops arriving this year even as the pullout is planned -- made it hard to accept Washington's sincerity about leaving.
"We don't see the forces preparing to leave Afghanistan. Just today in Kandahar an operation is starting. So how do you expect your opposition to accept a cease-fire if you are attacking them?"
Abedi, an Afghan-American businessman, is a member of a five-person delegation that also includes the son-in-law of Hezb-e Islami's fugitive leader, veteran militia commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of Washington's most-wanted foes.
Hezb-e Islami's move toward talks could signal a split in the insurgency, with the Taliban continuing to insist that no talks can take place until foreign troops leave. Abedi said Hezb-e Islami could act as "a bridge between those two sides."
He also emphasized his group's differences with the Taliban.
"We have only one common situation with the Taliban, which is the withdrawal of the foreign forces and the freeing of the country from the occupation. The rest of the things, they have their opinion and we have ours," he said. "We believe in free and fair elections, and the Taliban have a different idea."
Hezb-e Islami fighters clashed with Taliban guerrillas in the north this month, but Abedi played down the incident: "It's not a big deal for us. You can see it was a single incident."
With bases mainly in the east and northeast, Hezb-e Islami is not considered as serious a threat by NATO as the Taliban or the other main insurgent group, the Haqqani network. But reaching some kind of peace with the group could ease the conflict and boost Karzai's image as a conciliator.
Asked if the group was willing to agree a cease-fire with Western troops, Abedi said that was "achievable," but would have to be negotiated through Karzai's government, as the group was not now in contact directly with Western forces.
"We have said that there should be a cease-fire. But it depends on how soon the government can come to an agreement with the international forces," he said.
Washington has so far been cautious about the talks, giving its broadly worded blessing to peace initiatives with militants willing to lay down their arms and renounce terrorism.
Abedi said he had met U.S. officials a year ago, but declined to say who. Washington has not confirmed any formal contacts and said it will not talk to the delegation during its stay in Kabul.
Describing his own role -- as a U.S. citizen representing Afghan insurgents -- Abedi made a reference to the former U.S. vice president who accidently shot and injured a hunting partner.
"I live in the United States: how can I consider my own country my enemy? I am not Dick Cheney that I shoot my friends."