By Rob Taylor
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government must not retreat from hard-won freedoms or return to strict religious curbs to reach a peace deal with the Taliban, the country's former spy chief said, warning Afghans were distrustful of the secrecy surrounding nascent talks.
After President Hamid Karzai said the U.S. and Afghan governments had opened three-way "contacts" with the Taliban in a bid to end the country's decade-long war, Amrullah Saleh said ethnic groups coalescing towards a more unified opposition were prepared to fight to prevent a return of Taliban militancy.
"We want the state to remain pluralistic, not bow to the barrel of a gun," Saleh, a former head of Afghanistan's intelligence service and now a political opposition activist, told Reuters at his heavily-guarded Kabul home.
"If the Taliban, like us, want to come and play according to the script, sure. But if they come with gun-mounted Hi-Lux trucks, no, that means continuation of civil war, of war, and fragmentation of Afghanistan," he said.
Saleh's message is likely to strike a chord with many Afghans who feel sidelined by U.S.-initiated negotiations, despite Karzai's belated insistence on control of the process and determination they be Afghan-led.
Since being sacked by Karzai in 2010 following disagreements over how to deal with the Taliban, Saleh has formed a political group called the National Movement, targeting mainly Afghans who do not belong to the majority Pashtun group from which the Taliban draw most support.
Other ethnic power brokers are also circling each other including Uzbek general Abdul Rashid Dostum and prominent Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq, eyeing a possible common front.
Karzai told The Wall Street Journal newspaper in an interview published on Thursday that he has seen enough signs to believe the Taliban were "definitively" interested in exploratory talks, seen by some as the best chance of ending the country's costly war, now entering its 11th year.
But Saleh, a strident critic of Karzai's centralized rule and efforts to reach out to the Taliban, said he did not believe the hardline Islamists would ever accept an Afghan government they had implacably opposed as a "puppet," even if some sort of deal emerged to give them a slice of power.
"Those who are against the Taliban, they are the majority, and this majority is now neglected," he said
"On one side of the table there are some mullahs, on the other side of the table is an American. Where are the Afghans? We feel unprotected, both by Karzai and by the Americans."
THREAT OF CIVIL WAR
Saleh was a former aide to former anti-Taliban hero Ahmad Shah Massoud and his Northern Alliance, which helped U.S.-backed forces topple the Taliban in 2001, ending a five-year rule marked by medieval brutality and oppression of both women and Afghanistan's non-Pashtun minorities.
He said if war broke out again, it would be worse than the bloody civil war that engulfed the country after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when rival warlords razed much of Kabul in a conflict that left 50,000 civilians dead.
"Fighting is not a very sophisticated path. It's easy. And (so is) recruiting people to fight in this country where unemployment is more than 50 percent. To believe that only one group can fight is naivete," he said.
"They should know that when we offer to be part of the solution, they should not underestimate us."
Karzai had been forced into dealing with the Taliban not because of a stalemate in the NATO-led war, Saleh said, but because his government's poor anti-graft record and failure to build a justice system that people had faith in, leading many Afghans to believe the Taliban could do a better job.
"If we talk to the Taliban from a position of strength, where we have bought reform, where we have restored the confidence of the people in our ability to represent Afghanistan, the Taliban become a group, not a force," he said.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)