THE Taliban could be willing to strike a peace deal, and might even allow the US to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, but they won't deal with the current Afghan President, whom they despise for his alleged corruption.
A new report by British think tank the Royal United Services Institute, based on interviews with four senior Taliban figures, suggests an emerging pragmatic consensus within the movement's leadership.
Realising they cannot win the war, the Taliban are willing to take part in peace negotiations in exchange for a prominent political role post-2014.
Previous efforts to negotiate with the Taliban have raised hopes but proven bitter disappointments.
In March, just weeks after opening a political office in Qatar, the Taliban broke off talks, saying the US's position was ''shaky, erratic and vague''.
The four Taliban interviewed by RUSI, including former ministers and a guerrilla commander, are all linked to the Quetta Shura Taliban, led by the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, the driving force behind the current insurgency.
The report found there was an appetite among senior Taliban for a peaceful settlement to the 11-year war.
''The Taliban would be open to negotiation of a ceasefire as part of a general settlement and also as a bridge between confidence-building measures and the core issue of the distribution of political power in Afghanistan,'' it said.
But any deal could not be seen as a capitulation. A ceasefire would require a ''strong Islamic justification, obscuring any hint of surrender''.
And it would need the endorsement of Mullah Omar, whose Eid al-Fitr message last month was customarily defiant.
''The jihad activities robustly forge ahead … the enemy is not able to take a breath of relief in the main cities, rural areas and even in their barricaded garrisons.
''Mujahideen have taken initiatives of the war in their own hands … as a result, the foreign invaders and their allies in their military centres and bases do come under crushing blows of these heroic soldiers.''
But beneath the aggressive rhetoric, Mullah Omar also hinted at room for negotiation.
Some of the Taliban ideologies previously held most unswervingly, such as a ban on education for women, might now be up for discussion.
''We are committed to give all legitimate rights to women in the light of the Islamic principles, national interests and our noble culture,'' he said.
The RUSI report found the Taliban leaders felt modern subjects such as mathematics and sciences would be encouraged in religious and secular schools in a post-2014 Afghanistan.
And while co-education would not be tolerated, the report suggested ''models for both education and working environments could be adapted to accommodate strict segregation of men and women''.
President Hamid Karzai remains an obstacle to progress in the Taliban view. He is widely seen as a US stooge, fraudulently elected and corrupt. His final term expires in 2014.
''The Taliban will not negotiate with President Karzai or his administration,'' the report said.
But US forces might be able to stay. ''The Taliban are willing to accept long-term US military presence and bases as long as they do not constrain Afghan independence and Islamic jurisprudence,'' the report added.
The Taliban's allies are also up for negotiation. The Taliban ''deeply regrets'' its former association with al-Qaeda, and would even help the US target its operatives in the country.