ISLAMABAD The Haqqani network, one of the most feared insurgent groups in Afghanistan, would take part in peace talks with the Kabul government and the United States only if the Taliban did, its leader Sirajuddin Haqqani told Reuters on Saturday.
The Haqqanis technically fall under the command of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, though U.S. officials believe they can act independently.
The group has become so confident after battlefield gains, that it no longer has sanctuaries in Pakistan, and instead felt secure inside Afghanistan, said Sirajuddin in a rare interview, by telephone from an undisclosed location.
In what Sirajuddin described as a further sign of strength, the Haqqanis are also consolidating their hold on eastern Afghanistan, forcing rival insurgent groups out of territory they have claimed.
The militant leader is described by U.S. forces in Afghanistan as one of their most lethal enemies. The United States has posted a bounty of up to $5 million (3.1 million pounds) for him.
The Haqqanis rejected several peace gestures from the United States and President Hamid Karzai's government in the past because they were an attempt to "create divisions" between militant groups, he said.
Any further efforts to do so would fail, added Sirajuddin.
"They offered us very very important positions but we rejected and told them they would not succeed in their nefarious designs. They wanted to divide us," said Sirajuddin.
"We would support whatever solution our shura members suggest for the future of Afghanistan," he said, referring to the Afghan Taliban leadership.
Pakistani security analyst Ejaz Haider described Sirajuddin's comments as a shift.
"Sirajuddin's statement now is significant as a signal to the United States. That 'we are prepared to talk if you want to talk seriously and as part of the larger dialogue with the Taliban'," he said.
Despite hopes that talks with the Taliban could provide the political underpinning for a U.S. staged withdrawal from Afghanistan, the discussions are still not at the stage where they can be a deciding factor.
Months of talks between the two sides -- a crucial building block in any eventual political solution -- have yet to develop into serious negotiations.
Washington has repeatedly pressed Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network it believes is based in the unruly North Waziristan ethnic Pashtun tribal region near the Afghan border.
"Gone are the days when we were hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Now we consider ourselves more secure in Afghanistan besides the Afghan people. Senior military and police officials are with us," said Sirajuddin, believed to be in his late 30s.
"There are sincere people in the Afghan government who are loyal to the Taliban as they know our goal is the liberation of our homeland from the clutches of occupying forces."
HIGH ON THE U.S. HIT LIST
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned Pakistan on Wednesday the United States would "do everything we can" to defend U.S. forces from Pakistan-based militants staging attacks in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials suspect militants from the Haqqani network were behind Tuesday's rocket attack on the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul, as well as a recent truck bomb that wounded 77 members of the American forces.
The Haqqani network is perhaps the most divisive issue between allies Pakistan and the United States, whose ties have been heavily strained by the unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town in May.
Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, has long been suspected of maintaining ties with the Haqqani network, cultivated during the 1980s when Sirajuddin's father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was a prominent battlefield commander against forces of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies accusations it has ties to the Haqqanis.
If it is confirmed that the Haqqanis have left North Waziristan, U.S. pressure on Pakistan to eliminate the group may ease.
ROLE IN KABUL SIEGE?
Haqqani refrains from attacking the Pakistani state, and analysts say Pakistan sees the Haqqanis as a counterweight to the growing influence of rival India in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have played down the significance of Tuesday's attack on Kabul's diplomatic enclave, which showered rockets on Western embassies in a show of insurgent strength.
It was the longest and most audacious militant attack in the Afghan capital in the decade since the Taliban was ousted from power, and a stark reminder of insurgents' reach as Western forces start to return home.
Five police and 11 civilians, including children, were killed in the multi-pronged attacks, which included three suicide bombings.
Asked if the Haqqani network was behind the assault, Sirajuddin said:
"For some reasons, I would not like to claim that fighters of our group had carried out the recent attack on U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters. Our central leadership, particularly senior members of the shura, suggested I should keep quiet in future if the US and its allies suffer in future."
The Haqqani network is believed to have extensive ties with some of the world's most dangerous militant groups, including al Qaeda, in North Waziristan and elsewhere.
Pacifying the Haqqanis could boost the chances of a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, where violence is at its most intense since the overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001.
While Jalaluddin is still revered by militants, ill health forced him to pass on leadership of the group to Sirajuddin, who is seen as far more ruthless.
Asked whether there are 10,000 Haqqani fighters as some media reports have suggested, Sirajuddin laughed and said: "That figure is actually less than the actual number."
Sirajuddin said fighters from an insurgent group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had tried to take on U.S. troops in Haqqani territory.
"I spoke to the shura ... whether I should allow them to operate in my area of control. They did not allow me and then I ordered Hekmatyar's fighters to either join the Taliban or leave Khost and they left the area," he said.
The Haqqanis are thought to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, and are believed to have been behind high-profile attacks there, including a raid on Kabul's top hotel, an assassination attempt on the president, and a suicide attack on the Indian embassy.
In one example of the Haqqani group's effectiveness, they are believed to have helped an al Qaeda suicide bomber who killed seven CIA agents at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan last year, the deadliest strike on the agency in decades.
U.S. drone aircraft have tried to eliminate senior figures of the group in North Waziristan. Sirajuddin's younger brother was killed by a drone missile strike.
Washington has not always regarded the Haqqanis as enemies.
Former U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson, who raised money for the Afghan anti-Soviet resistance, once called Jalaluddin "goodness personified." The warrior was held in such high esteem he visited the White House when Ronald Reagan was president.
Nowadays, the United states spends a great deal of time trying to persuade the Pakistanis it is in their interest to eliminate the Haqqanis, for the sake of regional stability.
"We've seen in the past what happens when terrorists are given a de facto safe haven, as the Haqqanis have in parts of Pakistan - it doesn't turn out well for either Pakistan or the United States," said a U.S. official in Washington.
"The open question is whether Pakistan has the will -- or the ability -- to crack down on the Haqqani network. The U.S. has done its part to degrade the group's capabilities but can't do it entirely on its own."
Pakistan, which faces its own Taliban insurgency, cannot afford to antagonise the Haqqanis' seasoned fighters, and any crackdown could also invite the wrath of the group's allies.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Missy Ryan in Washington, and Qasim Nauman in Islamabad; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)