KHOST (Reuters) -- U.S.-backed Afghan government attempts to open peace talks with Taliban-led insurgents are a trick to divide the militants, a top Afghan insurgent commander allied to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has said.
The new U.S. policy on Afghanistan to be unveiled soon will include more emphasis on economic assistance as well as the 17,000 extra troops already committed, and President Barack Obama has said he is open to the idea of talks with moderate Taliban.
But a key commander of the Haqqani network, which is allied to both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, rejected the idea outright.
"The Taliban are under one command, there are no moderate Taliban fighters among us," Sirajuddin Haqqani told Reuters in an interview by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.
"This is a plot by Western nations trying to weaken and demoralize our fighters," he said.
Led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the group built up a fierce reputation fighting the Soviet invasion in the 1980s with support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It also formed ties with Osama bin Laden and his Arab fighters active in the same region.
Jalaluddin Haqqani then joined the Taliban government in the later 1990s and his group now leads the insurgency in southeast Afghanistan with bases across the border in Pakistan.
But effective leadership of the group has now passed from Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is in his 70s, to his more radical eldest son Sirajuddin, security analysts say.
The network is thought to be behind a number of high-profile suicide attacks in Kabul, notably the attack on the Indian Embassy in July last year that killed more than 50 people.
Sirajuddin Haqqani insisted his group was under the command of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who styles himself as the head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and has repeatedly rejected peace overtures from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"The Afghan government do send us peace proposals engaging high-ranking officials like ministers and governors, but we haven't come up with an agreement to talk. Once again I want to say this: We are followers of Emirate's policy," Haqqani said.
Afghan officials have met with moderate former Taliban officials in Saudi-sponsored talks aimed at exploring ways toward more meaningful dialogue, but the Taliban leadership says there can be no peace negotiations until the 70,000 international troops now in Afghanistan leave the country.
Obama said on March 22 that the United States had to come up with an exit strategy for Afghanistan, but Haqqani said he would not trust any deadline set for troop withdrawal by Western nations.
"It is just a trick, they will say it, but won't act on it. We want the independence of Afghanistan and no foreign troops on Afghan soil before any possibility of peace talks," he said.
Locked In A Stalemate
International troops are locked in a stalemate in southern Afghanistan, military commanders admit, one of the main reasons for the U.S. policy review.
The deadlock however also applies to the insurgents, who use suicide and roadside bombs to sap the Western will to fight but are unable to overcome foreign troops militarily.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest levels since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Some 5,000 people, including more than 2,100 civilians, were killed in fighting last year alone, a 40 percent rise on 2007, the United Nations says.
Sixty-eight foreign soldiers have been killed so far this year, far higher than the same period in any other year. Fourteen international troops were killed in the past week alone.
Haqqani promised "fresh tactics" in the fight as spring now arrives in Afghanistan, melting the snow in the mountain passes.
A suspected U.S. drone fired missiles into a Haqqani stronghold on the Pakistani side of the border in September last year killing 23 people, most of them Haqqani relatives.
Haqqani confirmed close relatives were killed in the attack and said his family had support and influence in Pakistan's tribal belt after being based there while fighting the Soviets.
He also admitted links with Al-Qaeda whose leaders, including bin Laden, are thought to have fled to Pakistan's lawless tribal region after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Security analysts point to the relative sophistication of Haqqani attacks such as that on Kabul's five-star Serena hotel last year that killed seven people, the assassination bid on Karzai last April and the Indian Embassy bombing as evidence of Al-Qaeda support.
"We have brotherly ties with Al-Qaeda, they are our Muslim brothers fighting for the same cause, but we do not need any support from them because we are strong ourselves," Haqqani said.
"There are many foreign fighters willing to come to fight in Afghanistan, but we don't need them as we are being supported by the public which has turned against the government and its Western backers for their brutality and tyranny," he said.