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RESPONSE TO TERROR | MILITARY

Anti-Taliban Leader's Kin Upset at Rumsfeld Claims

November 07, 2001|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUETTA, Pakistan — Statements by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that America pulled a prominent anti-Taliban leader out of Afghanistan could hurt his chances of gathering support, his relatives said Tuesday as the news filtered into southwestern Pakistan.

Hamid Karzai, who had been living in Quetta for several years, left for the mountains of central Afghanistan more than three weeks ago to rally tribal leaders to oppose the Taliban. As a Pushtun, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, and a member of a tribe with a history of helping to choose Afghanistan's kings, Karzai was trying to rebuild ties that are crucial to forming a viable opposition to the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

However, it was important for Karzai to be seen as an independent actor because of Afghanistan's pride in its independence and its ability to defeat efforts by other countries to dominate it.

Karzai's brothers said comments by Rumsfeld gave fodder to the Taliban, who had already declared that Karzai was nothing more than an agent of the United States, which is bombing Afghanistan in its war on terrorism.

Rumsfeld on Monday told reporters who were traveling with him back to Washington after a trip to Central Asia and Russia that a U.S. helicopter had taken Karzai out of Afghanistan on Sunday and returned him to Pakistan. He said Karzai planned to go back into Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld added new details on Tuesday.

Helicopter-borne U.S. troops pulled Karzai out of the country at his request, Rumsfeld said, adding that he did not believe Karzai had been under immediate threat from Taliban troops.

"He has been in Afghanistan with a number of supporters and troops, and we have, I know, delivered ammunition and some supplies to him," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing. "Within recent days . . . at his request, he was extracted from Afghanistan with a small number of his senior supporters and fighters, I believe for consultation in Pakistan, and undoubtedly will be going back [to Afghanistan] . . . when those consultations are completed."

If Karzai succeeds in rallying tribal support in the provinces that border Pakistan and surround the Taliban's spiritual capital of Kandahar, the Taliban would face serious military pressure both in the north, where the Northern Alliance is active, and the south.

"This is damaging," Shah Wali Karzai, a younger brother in Quetta, said of Rumsfeld's statements. "People are going to run away from America if they continue this. . . . The moderate people who oppose the Taliban are not happy with this," he said.

"Are they [the United States] trying to give Taliban the proof that he's an agent [of the United States]? I don't understand it," said another brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

Despite Rumsfeld's statement, Karzai's brothers insisted that he was still in the central Afghan province of Uruzgan meeting with tribal elders. They said they had talked with him and with people who had seen him there.

"I talked to him today. He is still in Afghanistan. He is fine and continuing with his work," said Ahmad Wali Karzai.

Zalmai Rassoul, secretary to Afghanistan's exiled king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, said in Rome that he had been in touch by phone with Hamid Karzai every day of his Afghan mission. He also insisted that Karzai was still in Afghanistan as of late Tuesday.

Karzai has called for the former king, now 87 and living near Rome, to return to Afghanistan and serve as the symbolic leader of a broad-based government that would include all major ethnic groups.

Karzai went into Afghanistan to rally support for a loya jirga, the traditional Afghan convocation of tribal elders used to choose a new leader. By definition, pursuing such a goal is an attempt to overthrow the Taliban.

Another Pushtun leader who made a similar attempt, Abdul Haq, was betrayed almost immediately and killed by Taliban soldiers. Karzai's family is clearly fearful that he will meet the same fate.

Karzai gave an interview by satellite phone to CNN. He made no mention of where he was but said he was working to "bring Afghanistan back to a state of normality and return the country to peace and stability."

He went on to say that the tribal chiefs and religious leaders he had met were "very much in favor of loya jirga and you would be surprised how much they hate what is going on in Afghanistan, the terrorism in Afghanistan."

And, he added, "Of course, they also do not want bombing."

Karzai has a large natural following among his tribesmen and could encourage other Pushtuns to defect from the Taliban. Even so, he was attacked by Taliban soldiers last week and forced to take refuge in the mountains. If the Taliban are ousted, Karzai is seen as someone who could play a key role in a future government.

However, in the view of his family, he is still in Afghanistan and still in danger of being captured, making his brothers all the more upset that U.S. officials are publicly discussing their involvement with him.

"The Pentagon is under pressure; they just want to convince the public that they are supporting Pushtun leaders," said Shah Wali Karzai, adding that he regards the story that his brother had been plucked from Afghanistan as propaganda. "What should we fight against, Taliban propaganda or Rumsfeld propaganda?"

*

Times staff writers John Hendren in Washington and Richard Boudreaux in Rome contributed to this report.

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