His openness, calm nerves, frankness, and the ability to maneuver within narrow spaces distinguish Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, the last foreign minister of the Taliban government. When I met him in his office several months before the fundamentalist movement”s downfall, he talked about watching the world”s news on satellite channels in his house despite Taliban’s ban on television broadcasts all over the country. I did not feel embarrassed when I asked him then about his stand as a hard-line Islamist if he saw a beautiful newsreader on the television screen. He quickly cited in answer the jurisprudence about the needs, "the first look is yours." He appeared to be contented when talking about "Al-Qaeda" leader Osama Bin Laden and the Arab elements that Mullah Omar, the deposed movement”s leader, had hosted. Mutawakkil admits today the grave mistake that Taliban paid generously for sheltering Bin Laden, the wanted person No. 1 in the United States.
Wakil Mutawakkil”s interview with "Asharq al-Awsat", the first Arab newspaper to meet him after Taliban’s downfall and his release, was conducted through a mediator who is in the Afghan capital Kabul, speaks Arabic fluently, and is a graduate of Al-Azhar. He received the questions on the Internet, which was banned to the Afghans under Mullah Omar, and the answers came three days later.
Mutawakkil talked about the experience of his detention by the Americans in Kandahar and Baghram Base for two years and then his house arrest for one year. He admitted some of the fundamentalist movement’s mistakes but denied having contacts at present with the Taliban leaders who are wanted by the United States. He also denied that he would represent Taliban in the upcoming parliamentary elections, saying he would be representing only himself from Kandahar district.
He also talked about the next stage and his candidacy for Afghanistan”s parliamentary elections. Observers and followers of Afghan affairs believe Mutawakkil”s release and approval of his candidacy is in some way meant to calm the situation with the fundamentalist movement to prompt its leaders to take part in civilian live. The former Afghan foreign minister disclosed that the movement fell because of an inequitable war launched by the coalition forces against Afghanistan. He said he felt he was wanted in Kandahar and hastened to surrender to the Afghan Government that handed him over to the US forces. He asserted that he was not tortured and said: "There was a relative difference in the treatment of someone who gave himself up and someone who was arrested. I was never tortured."
The interview with Sheikh Mutawakkilan, as he likes to be known, with "Asharq al-Awsat" was as follows:
(Al-Shafey) Can you tell us about the circumstances of your arrest, how many months did you spend in jail, and were you held in Baghram Base or somewhere else?
(Mutawakkil) Whenever I meet someone he asks me the same question and this happened many times. I would like to say briefly that prison was generally speaking not an easy experience and not the place that one yearns for. We cannot describe it as a good place. But there were some advantages to those who gave themselves up compared to those who were arrested. I spent almost four months in Kandahar Prison and the rest of the time in Baghram Base. The prison period lasted almost two years and then another year under house arrest.
(Al-Shafey) It is reported that you cooperated with the Americans in return for your release. What is the truth?
(Mutawakkil) I was released after two years. Had the release been after a short period of time, and then this could have signaled some cooperation. But it is not logical for me to cooperate with the Americans and then be jailed for two years.
(Al-Shafey) Are you now free to move at will or you still under guard?
(Mutawakkil) There was some kind of watch before I was able to meet the press. There might have been some kind of watch after I started to appear before the media but we can say there is room for freedom of expression and to go to the places I want.
(Al-Shafey) What are your visions regarding your announcement of your intention to take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections?
(Mutawakkil) If there is transparency and assurances about the upcoming matters (the elections), then there is a real hope of overcoming the Afghan people”s tribulation. If parliament”s deputies represent the people proportionally and are elected, then this could be a real representation of the Afghan people”s hopes and the deputies could also be relied upon to solve the people”s problems and alleviate their suffering.
(Al-Shafey) Are there contacts between you and the Taliban leaders and do you think Mullah Omar is alive?
(Mutawakkil) Regarding whether a person is alive or dead, if we have not heard of his death, then that is enough. As to relations or contacts with the Taliban leaders, I have no organized contacts with them.
(Al-Shafey) Do you feel mentally any change in your life after changing the black turban, which characterized the Taliban leaders in the past, into a white turban?
(Mutawakkil) I do not approve this question. I did not wear the black turban and I wore the white one very often.
(Al-Shafey) Do you feel now freer to watch the world”s news on television, satellite channels, and the open skies compared to when Taliban banned television?
(Mutawakkil) Totally the opposite. I watch news regularly, whether in the past or at present, in Kabul or Kandahar. There were even connections to the Internet inside the Foreign Ministry under the Taliban. Satellites were available and we watched all the news channels. There is nothing surprising here.
(Al-Shafey) Frankly, can we talk today about the Taliban”s mistakes in the past?
(Mutawakkil) Every regime and every person has its or his positive and negative points. The same principle applies to Taliban. It is difficult for me to explain in a short interview all of Taliban”s positive and negative points. There was undoubtedly some negativism in the Taliban regime as we can see them now and as we monitored them under the Taliban government. We did refer to the existing negative points.
(Al-Shafey) Do you believe Taliban made a mistake in its views of the relationship with the West and in sheltering Arab fighters like Bin Laden and others?
(Mutawakkil) The Arab fighters were in Afghanistan before Taliban. We inherited the Arab presence in Afghanistan when we reached the government. The Arab community expanded under Taliban”s rule. But there is a difference between hospitality and the problems created by their presence, and which the West used to point out. Generally speaking, there was a general consensus in Afghanistan to give the guest his right and welcome him. But the problems that happened because of them harmed all the Afghan hosts and the guest himself. There was in general a public opinion among the common people and inside the Taliban government. There were some who opposed the use of Afghan territories to attack others. These issues were in general causing us problems.
As to our relations with the West, they were just like any between two parties. In these relations, it was the second party that placed the obstacles to progress in relations and contacts. It was difficult for Taliban to continue along a road to a relationship where the other side stood immobile and not moving toward the other party. Our relations with the outside world at that time were not good and even were getting worse day after day until they led to war that caused the downfall.
(Al-Shafey) Do you believe the Arab fighters harmed Taliban”s image and did Taliban have real influence on Bin Laden?
(Mutawakkil) All the laws in Afghanistan at that time were valid and acceptable to all the parties. But let us talk for example about the causes of Taliban”s downfall. We can never say the Arabs who were in Afghanistan harmed Taliban”s image or that the latter harmed the Arabs. We do not judge matters this way. There were real and difficult problems on the ground and these led in the end to the government’s downfall. It is enough that Taliban paid the price generously.
(Al-Shafey) Did Taliban seriously think before the war about handing Bin Laden over and getting rid of its problems with the outside world?
(Mutawakkil) It was not easy at that time too implement the West”s demands. But Taliban also convened the ulema”s shura council and around 1,000 clerics met. The council decided in the end that the host should ask the guest to decide to go or leave Afghanistan without coercion. There was not however either a negative or positive response to this request from the guest or host before the government”s downfall. Many Afghans and I continue to ask why there was no positive or negative comment on the decision taken by the lemma’s shura council. I was among those who wished there was a response to that important decision.
(Al-Shafey) It was reported that you led the moderate wing inside Taliban with the help of the roving Afghan Ambassador Rahmatollah Hashemi and others. What is the truth? Is Rahmatollah all right and where is he?
(Mutawakkil) It was the Foreign Ministry’s duty to exert its effort to back the government”s policy abroad regardless off whether the effort was fruitful or not. There were no partisan circles inside Taliban. The latter was not a political party but a group of mujahidin and students holding different views. Hence the disagreements were ideological and not partisan. As to the word moderation, Islam is the religion of justice and likes moderation. Regarding Rahmatollah Hashemi who toured America before Taliban’s downfall, he did not go through the Foreign Ministry. I hope he is all right.
(Al-Shafey) What is the number of Foreign Ministry officials who were arrested in addition to Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, your ambassador in Islamabad before the war?
(Mutawakkil) Too few opportunities were available to me to meet other prisoners when I was in jail. I barely saw Abdul Salam Zaeef in Kandahar, just enough to shake hands before he was taken to Guantanamo. His health was good. I then saw another friend in Baghram and didn’t see any of the other Foreign Ministry diplomats.
(Al-Shafey) Where was Bin Laden hiding in Kandahar during and after the war? Why his arrest has become difficult for the strongest army in the world? Do you believe he is inside Afghanistan or inside Pakistan’s territories?
(Mutawakkil) Osama Bin Laden did not settle inn one place for security reasons. His daily life was always mobile or on the move from one place to another. The solid fact is that he has not been found so far. A person who wants to hide while facing a state or group can do everything he wants to avoid being discovered. We cannot pinpoint or deny now his whereabouts due to lack of evidence or proof. I believe the answer to this question about pinpointing Bin Laden’s whereabouts is difficult for many. But it suffices to say that he is somewhere in the Muslim world. This is just viewpoint.
(Al-Shafey) As Taliban”s former foreign minister, did you know about the September attacks or were they a total surprise too all the senior officials in Mullah Omar”s regime?
(Mutawakkil) I did not know of this as the foreign minister. It was natural for me not to know such things. These attacks took all by surprise and Taliban”s stand was clear at that time.
(Al-Shafey) If we put the clock back, would you have been in charge of Afghanistan”s Foreign Ministry or would you have handed Bin Laden over and protected the regime from the downfall?
(Mutawakkil) The Afghan people were my priority above posts or persons. Working for this people”s comfort was what I sought and continue to seek. We cannot judge a whole period but must divide it into positive and negative points. Man must certainly be bold enough to regret the negative ones. As to my convictions and beliefs, they were and remain Islam since I was in a revolutionary Islamic party, then Taliban, and now. Man should not change his beliefs. I wish some events did not happen since the Afghan people were harmed because of them.