Mullah Abdul Salem Zaeef

By Ben Farmer in Kabul and Dean Nelson in Delhi

Nato’s planned troop surge to Afghanistan will lead to an escalation in fighting and jeopardise secretive peace moves, a senior Taliban moderate has warned.

The warning comes from a figure considered the moderate face of the former Taliban regime, who is expected to play a key role in paving the way for any reconciliation efforts.

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Mullah Abdul Salem Zaeef said the surge of mainly American troop reinforcements would only deepen the country’s problems and was likely to act as a magnet to foreign fighters. His comments appeared to dent hopes that President Barack Obama’s strategy could produce rapid progress towards peace in Afghanistan.

Attempts to woo moderate Taliban commanders are central to the new US strategy for Afghanistan unveiled in Washington last month and discussed at the Nato summit in Strasbourg this weekend.

However the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who spent nearly four years in Guantanamo Bay prison, said the planned increase in troop numbers had instead jeopardised a Saudi peace initiative and would attract more foreign jihadists to the country.

He said the movement was united and talk of moderate or extremist factions was a conspiracy to undermine the Taliban.

A western diplomatic source said the US troops surge was needed to counter the Taliban’s own offensive, and added that the comments appeared to show the Taliban leadership was not yet ready for peace talks.

Mullah Zaeef said: "All the people were optimistic when Obama became president. I was a little optimistic that he would stop the war, but when he declared the strategy, especially sending more troops and sending a military man as the ambassador, these strategies are war strategies, not a peace strategy and it’s increasing the problem."

Mullah Zaeef, 40, who lives in a Kabul suburb, is understood to maintain contact with the Taliban leadership in Pakistan and took part last year in Saudi-hosted efforts to bring Afghan officials and insurgents together. The talks had made progress, he said, but were being undermined by the troop surge.

He said: "The Saudis wanted to be the interpreter between the Taliban and the government and they did something, but increasing more troops is destroying this process." He said any reconciliation between Afghans could not take place while foreign troops were in the country.

"The problem is not between Taliban and Afghans, everything is possible by Afghans. The Taliban are sitting with them, I know that, they respect each other."

President Obama’s order to send another 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan this year, with a request from US commanders for a further 10,000 still pending, would also make the Taliban more extremist, he said. "When the enemy becomes stronger, the other enemy becomes more extreme to exist." He dismissed the US focus on hunting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying the core of the terrorist network only amounted to around 100 men, but said the surge would attract foreign jihadis.

"When they are increasing the number of soldiers, foreigners in Muslim countries they are increasing their soldiers and their soldiers are not soldiers by money, they are volunteers. And that’s increasing the problem in the area."

US-backed reconciliation efforts have focused on peeling away insurgent commanders motivated by local grievances rather than strict ideology.

The Western diplomatic source said Mullah Zaeef’s claims of Taliban unity were "wishful thinking". He said: "There is plenty of empirical evidence that the insurgents are pulled in different directions and not all are prepared to drag the country into perpetual war."

Attempts to work with Pakistan to deny the Taliban safe havens in the country’s tribal border regions were also unlikely to work, Mullah Zaeef claimed.

He said: "Pakistan is not able to resolve the problem. If Pakistan wants to create problems for the Taliban, then it means creating problems for themselves."