KABUL (Reuters) -- The Taliban is willing to work with all Afghan groups to achieve peace, but the problems of Afghanistan can only be solved if foreign troops withdraw from the country, a senior insurgent leader has said.
The Taliban has made a strong comeback in the last three years, extending the scale and scope of their insurgency across the south and east and up to the fringes of the Afghan capital.
U.S. officials admit they are not winning the war but, they say, neither is the Taliban. A stalemate has been reached with insurgents unable to overcome NATO's military might and foreign troops unable to stop Taliban roadside and suicide bombs.
Repeated calls from Afghan President Hamid Karzai for talks with the Taliban have been rejected by the militants, but the statement from the senior Taliban commander signals a slightly softer stance toward the government while maintaining the customary hard line against the international troop presence.
"We would like to take an Afghan strategy that is shared and large-scale, in consultation with all the Afghan groups, to reach positive and fruitful results," Mullah Mutassim, a former Taliban finance minister and member of the group's political council, told "Al-Samoud" magazine in an interview conducted on February 25.
But, he said, the United States "has to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan as soon as possible, because the real starter of crises and complication of matters is the presence of foreign forces in the country.
"If these forces leave, the problem will be over, the question will be finished, and peace will prevail," he was quoted as saying in the interview translated by the U.S.-based Site Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi websites.
Mutassim is regarded as close to fugitive Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar.
No Alternative But To Fight
The United States has some 38,000 troops in Afghanistan alongside some 30,000 troops from 40 other mostly NATO member states.
President Barack Obama last week ordered another 17,000 U.S. troops deployed to try to break the stalemate and has pledged a new strategy in Afghanistan to increase development and at the same time ease regional tensions that contribute to the war.
Mutassim said the armed struggle was the only way to drive out foreign forces and if the United States sent more troops to Afghanistan that would just lead to more soldiers being killed.
"Obama's taking this unreasonable strategy indicates the plan of his bloody and fierce war strategy, which will cause the death of many of his arrogant troops in the face of the holy Afghan jihad," he said.
Despite his harsh words for the West, Mutassim only had praise for the government of Saudi Arabia, which is often scorned by hard-line Islamists for its close ties with the United States.
Saudi Arabia, one of only three states to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, has hosted tentative talks between former Taliban and Afghan government officials aimed at exploring ways toward peace.
But, Mutassim said, the Taliban was not for a share in power.
"The Islamic emirate demands to rule the country so as to establish an...Islamic system in it, not in order to occupy high positions in the agent government," he said.
Mutassim denied the austere Islamists' movement had been against women's education while they were in power, but said the ravages of war had not allowed girls to be schooled.
"I say that educating women is as necessary as educating men," he said.
The Taliban has eased a number of its hard-line edicts against such things as television and music in the areas they control, making them, Mutassim said, more popular now than when they were in power.