Despite seemingly stalled peace talks between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban, officials say the intelligence chief speaks by telephone with militant leaders nearly every day about the country's constitution and political future.
In addition, Afghanistan's national security adviser has conversations with the Taliban every other month, officials familiar with the efforts said.
The Associated Press has seen documents describing the conversations between the Afghan officials and the Taliban leadership in both Pakistan and the Gulf state of Qatar, where they maintain an office.
While Afghan officials said neither side was ready to agree to public peace talks, the documents revealed details of the issues discussed, including the Taliban's apparent willingness to accept Afghanistan's constitution and future elections.
A senior Afghan security official, who had taken notes on the details of talks, rifled through a black leather-bound book until he came to a list he called "Taliban talking points."
The Afghan security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the Taliban wanted certain amendments to the constitution — although not immediately. They also envisioned an Islamic system of governance in Afghanistan, he said.
Among the Taliban's demands, according to the official:
* They accepted education for boys and girls at all levels, but wanted segregation by gender.
* Women could be employed in all fields, including defense and the judiciary, and they could serve as judges at all levels except the Supreme Court. However, the Taliban wanted constitutional guarantees that a woman could not be president.
* Special courts should be established to oversee thousands of cases that allege land was taken illegally by the rich and powerful in the post-Taliban era. Many of the landowners are former warlords who are now in the government. The Taliban wants the land returned to those from whom it was taken.
* Elections could be held after an interim government is established, with no one affiliated with past governments allowed to serve in the interim administration. The Taliban said all sides could keep areas currently under their control until voting is held.
Afghanistan's Intelligence agency had no comment about the contacts with the Taliban. Officials familiar with the conversations said intelligence chief Masoum Stanikzai has near daily telephone conversations with Taliban leader Abbas Stanikzai, who is not related to him. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
National Security adviser Mohammed Haneef Atmar's office refused requests to comment on reports of his contacts with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
"I am confident that these are sincere terms from the Taliban — with the qualification, of course, that in the areas they control they will determine the outcome of the elections — because I have heard variants of them put forward by a range of people from or close to the Taliban," said Anatol Lieven, professor at Georgetown University's campus in Qatar and the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country.
But the path to substantive and public peace negotiations is difficult, he said.
"Apart from anything else, it is difficult to imagine the existing elites [in Kabul] surrendering power and patronage to a neutral government, let alone one that in future would inevitably have to include the Taliban," Lieven said.
Rise to power
The Taliban came to power in 1996 after pushing aside the U.S.-backed mujahedeen fighters who defeated Afghanistan's Communist government. The mujahedeen then turned their weapons on each other, killing thousands of civilians and destroying entire neighborhoods in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Their rule also was marked by widespread corruption.
Under the Taliban, officials imposed a repressive interpretation of Islam that denied education to girls, drove women from the workforce and established harsh punishments like public executions and flogging similar to those carried out in Saudi Arabia. The only countries to recognize the Taliban government were Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
After harboring militants from al-Qaida who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power, but the militants have waged an insurgency against the Afghan government since then. The U.S. and NATO have sent thousands of troops to the country in the past 16 years to help the Afghan military fight the Taliban and other militant groups.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia. He said American troops would "fight to win" by attacking enemies, "crushing" al-Qaida, preventing terrorist attacks against Americans and "obliterating" the Islamic State group, whose affiliate has gained a foothold in Afghanistan as the U.S. squeezes the extremists in Syria and Iraq.
But his definition of a win in Afghanistan notably did not include defeating the Taliban. "Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan," Trump said.
Although Trump insisted he would not talk about numbers of troops, he hinted he would embraced the Pentagon's proposal to boost troop numbers by nearly 4,000, augmenting the roughly 8,400 Americans there now.
Lieven said he was hopeful that U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster could use the increase authorized by Trump as well as the threat of an increased presence by India "as a way to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table," using their own talking points as a start.
But the Taliban told AP they were not interested in talks.
A member of the Afghan government's High Peace Council, Abdul Hakim Mujahed, who also served as the Taliban's representative at the United Nations during their rule, said there is deep mistrust on both sides.
Mujahed said it is also unlikely the Taliban will enter talks without a guarantee of an eventual troop withdrawal.
"They have moved away from demanding immediate withdrawal but they want a discussion with the Americans on a timetable," he said.