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Ex-Commander Says Most Afghan Taliban Want Peace

Mullah Abdul Salaam is a former Taliban envoy.

Mullah Abdul Salaam is a former Taliban envoy.

MUSA QALA, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Most Afghan Taliban are willing to lay down their arms, a former insurgent commander said, but are afraid they will be killed for defecting because the government cannot ensure their safety.

"Ninety-five percent of the Taliban want to reconcile with the government if they can be assured security," Mullah Abdul Salam, a former high-ranking Taliban commander and now district chief in Musa Qala in the southern Helmand Province, told Reuters. "But the government of Afghanistan cannot ensure their safety. If they defect to the government, the other Taliban will kill them. They are fighting for their lives."

The Afghan government must promise to keep safe those insurgents who make peace, Salam said, but most of the militants are hedging their bets until it is strong enough to do so.

The Taliban "are just observing the security situation. At the moment the government is not much stronger than them. When it gets stronger they will come to the government side," said Salam, once a friend of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The United States on March 27 launched a new strategy in Afghanistan in response to the Taliban-led insurgency that is growing in strength and scope. More than 5,000 people, including 2,100 civilians, have been killed in the past year alone.

Before his defection to the government side in 2007, Salam had served as provincial governor for Oruzgan in south Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold and birthplace of Mullah Omar, the Islamist movement's reclusive leader.

Salam said he used to be very close with Mullah Omar but the two fell out about 10 years ago. He has not had contact with Omar since, he said.

"I was really close to him. We would meet just like we are here. He was my good friend," Salam said. "Two years before the 2001 attacks...I told Mullah Omar: 'You are forcing the people to pray, and this is not a good way to treat the people. Leave them to live their lives."

"But he didn't listen and so after that I didn't have any contact with him," Salam said.

He said in an interview he is in contact with the Taliban all over Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Salam says he needs more funding to allow intelligence officers to go and talk to the insurgents and wants to set up more police checkpoints to spread governance to a wider area.

"If they are not living in a secure area and they join the government, the other Taliban will kill them. I say to the Taliban: 'Stop killing the people and do business and look after your families,'" Salam said.

With violence at its highest level since the Taliban was ousted in 2001, the United States is sending some 21,000 new troops to bolster about 70,000 foreign soldiers already in Afghanistan trying to crush the insurgency.

Washington says the fight cannot be won by military means alone and its strategy review refers to the need to bring some of the insurgents in from the cold.