KABUL — A Toyota Corolla full of former Taliban officials and armed guards stopped in front of Abdul Salam Zaeef’s home in western Kabul this month, awaiting the man who helped direct the Taliban from Pakistan before his capture and detention at Guantanamo Bay.
With Zaeef inside, the car sped off for President Hamid Karzai’s palace, where the once-fugitive Zaeef has lately become a frequent guest.
As Karzai weighs the prospect of talks with Taliban officials in Qatar, Afghanistan’s government has invited Zaeef and others with long-standing ties to the Taliban to offer guidance and help mediate.
Afghan leaders have been disappointed by their lack of access to Taliban negotiators who have been speaking directly to the United States. But they have found an alternative in former insurgents — many of them imprisoned and later reintegrated — who live only a few miles from the palace gates.
And so Zaeef — a broad-shouldered, bearded man who was once the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan — has seen an unlikely resurgence in his diplomatic career. This time, he’s trying to convince the government, and anyone else who will listen, that the Taliban is serious about peace if its preconditions can be met.
“They are ready to discuss peace,” he said in an interview. “They have received the message from their leadership, and they are ready.”
Thousands of former Taliban members have put down their weapons in recent years. Most are low-level fighters whose peace deals with the government were unceremonious and of little political consequence. But a few, like Zaeef, were offered early release from prison if they agreed to work with the government rather than against it.
Members of this small group have been having occasional conversations with Karzai for several years. But with peace talks drawing closer, they are meeting with top Afghan officials much more often, according to the president’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
The meetings have been mostly informal, and officials are quick to point out that they are no substitute for negotiations with Taliban diplomats in Qatar. But given the obliqueness of the Taliban’s public demands, and concerns here that the United States is not adequately including the Afghan government, the former insurgents have come to play an important role.
“We’ve had ongoing talks . . . and we do consider some of these men, like Zaeef, to be speaking for some segment of the movement,” said Shaida M. Abdali, the deputy national security adviser. “But we're still waiting for officially appointed representatives.”
On Sunday, during a visit to Kabul, Marc Grossman, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Taliban must sever its connections to terrorists before opening a diplomatic office in Qatar.
Arsala Rahmani, a former education minister for the Taliban, said he has met with Karzai four times this month, attempting to bridge the divide between his “old colleagues” and the government that promised him refuge.
Mohammad Akhbar Agha, the former leader of the Taliban-affiliated Jaish al-Muslimeen group, said he talks to the Taliban as much as he does to the government, fielding 20 calls a day from both sides in recent weeks. He said he communicates the Taliban’s demands: a true Islamic government, the prompt removal of foreign troops and the release of key prisoners.
The intermediaries offer rhetoric more muted — and more likely to keep Karzai engaged — than the Taliban’s official pronouncements. But the men sometimes struggle to articulate their own political identities. Are they still part of the Taliban movement? Or have they become de facto members of the Karzai camp?
The government says they have been “reintegrated,” but some claim otherwise. The national security police camp outside of their homes 24 hours a day — both to protect them and to make sure they aren’t aiding the insurgency, Zaeef said.
“I was a Talib until I was detained, and I was released under the condition that I wouldn’t do anything with the Taliban. But I didn’t change. I am still a Talib,” he said.
“I have not been reintegrated,” said Agha. “I want to work for the Afghan government, but not this one.”
For years, Karzai has invited former Taliban officials to join his government. Several of them sit on the High Peace Council, the official body appointed by the president to pursue a political settlement with the insurgency. Those appointments were meant to send a message to the country’s armed groups — that the government was ready and willing to absorb its “angry brothers,” as Karzai called them.
“We know their mentality. We know how the organization works,” said Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, once the Taliban’s representative to the United Nations and now the deputy director of the High Peace Council. Mujahid boasts credentials of particular relevance: Several of the Taliban leaders thought to be in Qatar were once his employees.
Afghan officials note that the meetings are not simply conducted as preparation for official talks. They are also a symbolic gesture meant to convey to “the armed opposition that we are willing to sit down and talk with any Afghan,” said Faizi, the presidential spokesman.
The Karzai government, in an attempt in July to bolster the fledgling peace process, convinced the U.N. Security Council to remove 14 Taliban members from a sanctions list that since 1999 had prevented them from traveling or sending money abroad. Several of those men are among the group making regular visits to the palace. One of them, Maulvi Qalamuddin, led the movement’s religious police force, which beat men and women in the streets to enforce a strict interpretation of Islam.
In statements to the media, Taliban spokesmen have denied links between the current organization and former officials who now live in Kabul.
“They are under watch and are not speaking on our behalf. They may speak or give advice or suggestions to anyone as individual Afghans, but they do not represent us,” said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
Nonetheless, Zaeef, Rahmani and Agha are struck by their newfound relevance, as the only public faces of a movement that for years has shunned public diplomacy. For Zaeef, it’s an opportunity to market his autobiography, now translated into 10 languages: “My Life with the Taliban.”
His large home holds the religious paraphernalia that he amassed as a Taliban leader, but there are hints of a new, secular life in the capital: an Adobe Photoshop user guide, files from his nascent real estate business and a newly purchased iPhone that, every once in a while, lights up with an incoming call from Karzai’s palace and blasts his ringtone, the Muslim call to prayer.
“I’m proud of what I did before,” he said before answering a recent call, “and I’m proud of what I’m doing now.”