London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Who are the “moderate Taliban” that US President Barack Obama spoke of reaching out to? This is a question that has confused many. The leaders and elements within the Taliban movement are continuously changing, and there is no open dialogue between the Taliban and the international community that would allow us to say that one party [within the Taliban] is more moderate than the other. As perplexing as this question is, it raises another, namely; which elements within the Taliban would not object to engaging the USA in dialogue? This is an even more perplexing question because it is impossible to pick up the phone and speak to the Taliban to ask them; would you like to open dialogue with America? But despite the mystery surrounding the Taliban movement and its leadership, the question remains; who are the moderates within the Taliban movement?
Sources close to the negotiations taking place between some Taliban leaders and the Afghan government refused to point out the moderate and extremist elements within the Taliban as this would only sow suspicion and sensitivity between the two wings. Especially since Taliban leaders refuse to publicly acknowledge that they have entered into negotiation with Hamid Karzai’s government, and described any news on this topic as “lacking credibility.” This is despite the fact that Mohammed Tayyib Agha, Mullah Omar’s cousin, spokesman, and aide- who fluently speaks Arabic- traveled to Mecca and took part in negotiations with the Afghan government under the mediation of King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz in October 2008. Hamid Karzai’s brother, Mullah Qayyum also participated in these negotiations. As for the Taliban, there are claims that Abdullah Anas, son-in-law of Abdullah Azzam, spiritual leader of the Afghan-Arabs participated in these talks. Abdullah Anas was also former assistant to Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance who was killed by Al Qaeda two days prior to the 9/11 attacks.
The government emphasized that talks are taking place under good conditions, and that the supportive comments from American President Barack Obama gave them a strong boost, which is in line with Obama’s policy of “negotiating on all issues.”
The American position on solving the Afghan crisis rests upon Taliban agreement to put a stop to all violence, expel the Al Qaeda network, and pledge to refrain from involvement in terrorism in the future. In return, US and coalition forces will agree to withdraw from Afghanistan. Afghan sources have strongly criticized this stance, saying that there are no moderates in the Taliban, and pointing out that the Iraqi experience has proved that viable agreements must be built upon common interest.
Afghan sources have revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the first goal of Karzai’s government is to ensure his reelection next August, after his time in office comes to an end in May. Many Afghan political analysts believe that he will need to win the electoral votes of areas controlled by the Taliban if he wishes to be reelected.
However the extremist wing of the Taliban are of the view that even if they agree to a ceasefire in one area or more, their overall strategy remains the same- they want foreign forces out of Afghanistan and a return to power. Perhaps Obama would agree to withdraw his forces, but the question is; would the US accept the return of the Taliban to power? A Taliban who would aim to implement a harsh version of Islamic Shariaa Law, oppress women once again, destroy the culture of Afghanistan, and neutralize its political opponents in a brutal manner. Experts on Afghanistan warn that matters may be heading towards such a scenario, and that the convergence of [mutual] interests demonstrates that events are moving in this direction, as any US withdrawal from Afghanistan would mean the inevitable rise of the Taliban once again.
Washington put forward a new proposal which has been described as an attempt to “tempt” the Taliban movement in Afghanistan into the political field, and away from violence, by allowing the movement to set up a political party and take part in elections. This is part of the new plan by the US administration to follow more than one directive in the effort of ending the conflict with Taliban fighters, according to a report in the Observer last week. The report revealed that US Ambassador to Kabul, William Wood, had told the Observer that ” America would be prepared to discuss the establishment of a political party, or even election candidates representing the Taliban, as part of a political strategy that would sit alongside reinforced military efforts to end the increasingly intractable conflict.”
According to those close to the Afghan issue, four negotiation sessions between the Taliban and the government took place last month in which prominent figures participated. Such figures included former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has hundreds of loyal militants who are fighting in Eastern Afghanistan. Hekmatyar’s representatives met with Afghan government representatives in a Dubai hotel during the past two weeks, according to Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban minister and the current mediator between the Taliban and the government. Rahmani also confirmed that he was in contact with Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani, who served as Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs in Mullah Omar’s government, as well as the Taliban military leader of the southern front.
Former Afghan Minister of Information, Sheik Mohamed Tashkiri, revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat the names of 44 Taliban leaders who are wanted by American forces. This list includes; Mullah Omar, leader of the former regime who has a 10 million dollar bounty on his head, his aide Mohammed Tayyib Agha, Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, in addition to opposition leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Mullah Omar fled Afghanistan in 2001 and there are very few pictures of the former Afghani leader. Mullah Omar is the leader of the Taliban movement that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 and which refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the United States following the 9/11 attacks. The US offered a substantial reward for any information that would lead to Bin Laden’s arrest. It is also worth noting that Hekmatyar and his Islamic party [Hizb-e-Islami] played a key role in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. He also took part in the power struggle that broke out following the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989. Hekmatyar has lived in Iran since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, but still wields significant influence over the northern front of Afghanistan. The list also included the names of former Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, as well as former Taliban Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi. Turabi issued a number of oppressive and extremist decrees [during the Taliban era] and was also responsible for supervising the formation of the religious police who were responsible for implementing these decrees.
Sheik Mohamed Tashkiri, who was also an advisor to President Hamid Karzai, revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the moderate elements within the Taliban include former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef. Zaeef has renewed his commitment to a national unity government that includes the Taliban and different factions of the Afghan nation. Tashkiri also mentioned former Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, and former Taliban envoy Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, who studied at Yale University.
Sources close to Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi say that his beliefs and ideas have significantly changed since the collapse of the fundamentalist regime that he worked to defend in the international realm though his role as envoy. In an interview with Western media apparatus, Hashemi – who speaks English, Persian and Pashto- said that he had faith in Western democracy, and believed in women’s right to education. Furthermore, he expressed belief in the right of women to vote in parliamentary elections. He pointed out that many Westerners have a misconception with regards to the Taliban movement, which some describe as a fundamentalist movement, yet there are those within it, such as former Foreign Minister Wakil Muttawakil who have moderate ideas, and who call for disarmament.
Prior to the collapse of the Taliban regime, there were rumors that a liberal current existed within the Taliban who were opposed to Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, and Mullah Omar’s policy of sheltering Osama Bin Laden inside Afghan territory. At the time, Hashemi told Asharq Al-Awsat that his country could obtain international recognition within two weeks if it abandoned its extremist ideology, reopened cinemas and video stores, and handed over Bin Laden to the United States who was accused of being responsible for the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa. But Hashemi believed that ultimately this would not solve the problem, which he described as incurable, between the Taliban government and the United States.
Following the collapse of the Taliban regime Hashemi revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat the story of the last days of Mullah Omar’s regime, he revealed that Mullah Omar gave his Foreign Minister Wakil Muttawakil a maximum security detail to protect him in the Foreign Ministry villa outside Kandahar. Mullah Omar also prohibited Muttawakil from meeting international journalists who arrived in Afghanistan following the air raids on Afghanistan that began on 7 October 2001.
According to Tashkiri, the Taliban moderates also include former Taliban Minister of Refugees and Returnees Mullah Ahmed Yaar, in addition to former Taliban Minister of Higher Education, Mullah Arsalan Rahmani, who is the most supportive of negotiations with Hamid Karzai’s government. Tashkiri also mentioned Taliban envoy to the UN, Mullah Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who was one of the dew diplomats in the Taliban movement, and the movement’s only connection with the US. Mujahid did all that he could to rescue the Taliban, and for three weeks following the 9/11 attacks worked from New York attempting to convince the Taliban leadership to condemn the attacks and hand over Osama Bin Laden.
Tashkiri informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the seven-year war between the Taliban and NATO forces has not accomplished anything. We believe that the only way to achieve security and stability is via negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.” He added that he personally could not believe the level of chaos, poverty, economic deterioration, and administrative corruption in Kabul today. He stressed that the only way to solve Afghanistan’s problems is via reconciliation between Afghanistan’s various groups, and that the upcoming presidential elections will see a change in the political future of Afghanistan.
Tashkiri also spoke about the deteriorating security situation in Kabul and other Afghan cities leading up the forthcoming presidential elections. The list of candidates standing for presidential election includes some prominent names, such as former Afghan Minister of Finance Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, and leader of the Afghan Mellat Party [Afghan Social Democratic Party] Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who is also a former Finance Minister and has strong backing from the Americans. Also running in the Afghan Presidential election are former Defense Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali, as well as former Afghan Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah, in addition to a number of other less-known figures. It is expected that other well-known figures will put themselves forward as presidential candidates’ over the course of the coming days.
From the chaos overwhelming the electoral scene in Afghanistan it seems that Karzai’s chances for re-election are rapidly decreasing, especially if a transition government is formed to oversee the electoral process. However the big question remains; what candidate can replace Karzai, satisfy the political factions inside Afghanistan as well as the decision-makers abroad, and be able to put a stop to the country’s suffering which is ongoing as a result of the occupation and the consequences of the so-called “war on terror?”
The moderate names of former Taliban leadership figures [also] include Maulavi Mohammad Qasim Halimi, Chief of Protocol under Mullah Omar, who was held in Bagram Prison for over a year. Asharq Al-Awsat first met Halimi in 2001, six months before the collapse of the Taliban regime. Halimi is a graduate from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and speaks classical Arabic fluently. After reconciling with the government he currently occupies the position of chief of the investigation branch of the Supreme Court, and is a deputy to Afghan Chief Justice, Dr. Abdul Salam Azimi.
When Asharq Al-Awsat met with Halimi a year ago, it was noticeable that He had given up wearing the black Pakul turban [famously worn by the mujahedeen in Afghanistan]. Today Halimi trims his bread, which was much longer during the Taliban era, and travels in a Land Cruiser accompanied by a driver and a body-guard armed with a Kalashnikov rifle. Halimi’s deputy, Mohamed Othman Hamidi, assists him in technical and administrative work. Hamidi is a graduate from the Imam Ibn Saud Islamic University, and speaks Arabic fluently after spending six years in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Halimi enjoys more freedom than other former Taliban leaders who have reconciled with the government, including freedom of movement. Halimi is in contact with old friends [from the Taliban movement] such as former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Muttawakil with whom he shared a prison cell in Bagram Prison for over one year. Halimi is also in contact with Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban Ambassador to Afghanistan, who spent four years variously in Bagram Prison, Kandahar Prison, and Guantanamo Bay. Both currently reside in the same town of Khushal Khan, west of Kabul. Halimi said “I was the first person to know that Mullah Zaeef had reached Bagram Prison by [recognizing] his voice. The Americans used to cover our faces with masks so that we would not recognize one another. Zaeef urgently called out for some water while I was sitting next to him, although I did not realize this [at the time], he said Bismillah [invoking the name of God] prior to drinking the water and that is when I recognized his voice. I whispered his name ‘Mullah Abdul Salem? He said to me, who are you? And I answered, Halimi. But then the prison guard shouted to us saying that we should not speak.”
On more than one occasion, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sated that he is prepared to go to the greatest lengths to provide protection to Mullah Omar if the Taliban leader would be willing to take part in negotiations for peace. However Karzai said that some progress must be made, and Taliban’s desire for peace must be assured, before he will provide security for Mullah Omar. The Afghan government says that it is prepared to talk to anyone that recognizes its constitution, and the government did indeed take its first steps with regards to holding talks with the Taliban in September 2008, when government representatives met with Taliban officials in Saudi Arabia to discuss an end to the conflict.
General David McKiernan [US Commander in Afghanistan] recently described the war in Afghanistan as “stalemated” particularly in the Southern parts of the country. McKiernan also warned that “2009 is going to be a tough year” and that military power alone might not be enough to defeat the Taliban.