KABUL, Afghanistan -- Taliban representatives at a conference did not insist on total power in Afghanistan and pledged to grant rights to women that the militant Islamist group itself brutally suppressed in the past, according to a Taliban statement received Sunday.
The pledges emerged from a rare meeting last week involving Taliban and Kabul government representatives.
The less strident substance and tone came in a speech delivered at a conference in France. The French hosts described it as a discussion among Afghans rather than peace negotiations.
It was hard to determine whether the softer line taken by the Taliban representatives reflected a real shift in policy or a salvo in the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of Afghans.
The speech said that a new constitution would protect civil and political rights of all citizens. It promised that women would be allowed to choose husbands, own property, attend school and seek work, rights denied them during Taliban rule, which ended with the 2001 U.S. invasion. The speech was emailed from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
"We are not looking to monopolize power. We want an all-Afghan inclusive government," the speech said. It was delivered by two Taliban officials, Mawlawi Shahbuddin Dilawar and Muhammad Naeem during the conference on Thursday and Friday.
Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government welcomed such talks but did not expect them to bridge the gap between the warring sides.
The United States started to embrace the idea of peace talks after President Barack Obama took office, but discussions stalled in recent years, despite the formation of an Afghan government council tasked with reaching out to the Taliban and the establishment of a Taliban political office in Qatar.
"The peace initiative is a process, and one or two or three meetings are not going to solve the problems. But we are hopeful for the future," Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said. He said the government's preconditions for the talks with the Taliban have not changed: a cease-fire, recognition of the Afghan constitution, cutting ties with international terrorists and agreeing to respect the rights of Afghan citizens including women and children.
The Taliban speech reiterated the group's own longtime policies, declaring that the current constitution was "illegitimate because it is written under the shadow of (U.S.) B-52 aircraft" and that the Taliban remained the legitimate government of the country, a reference to the U.S.-led campaign that drove the Taliban from power.
It also called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and said a 2014 national election was "not beneficial for solving the Afghan quandary" because it would take place while the country was still under foreign occupation.
Most NATO forces are scheduled to be withdrawn by 2014. The Kabul government and its international backers hope that a peace deal can be brokered with the Taliban and other militant groups before the pullout. NATO still has more than 100,000 troops, including 66,000 U.S. soldiers, on the ground. Washington is now determining the size of a scaled down force the United States will keep in Afghanistan after 2014.
"The occupation must be ended as a first step, which is the desire of the entire nation, because this is the mother of all these tragedies," the speech said.
The conference was also attended by the Hezb-e-Islami group, which is allied with the Taliban, and political opponents of President Hamid Karzai, whom the Taliban regard as a puppet of Washington.