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Moderates in Taliban Are Given a Break

Afghanistan, with U.S. help, has begun talks aimed at including some militia members in the rebuilding process and upcoming elections.

October 22, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — Almost two years after overthrowing the Taliban regime, the U.S. and its Afghan allies are taking steps toward negotiating with more moderate leaders of the hard-line Islamic militia in an effort to involve them in the nation's rebuilding process and upcoming elections.

In one key move, the U.S. military granted limited release to former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel this month to allow him to pursue talks with other Taliban officials, Afghan officials confirmed Tuesday. Mutawakel turned himself in to U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan in February 2002; Afghan government sources said he was held at the U.S. military's Bagram air base, north of Kabul, the capital.

"He has been shifted to another location, but I would not term his release as total freedom yet," Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said in an interview here. "He's under supervision, and we will have to wait and see."

With U.S. assistance, President Hamid Karzai's government is responding to requests from former Taliban members to open negotiations with some of the movement's more moderate leaders, Samad added.

"It is definitely not an attempt to talk to the Taliban as we have known them, as a militant terrorist group," Samad said. "There are no attempts to talk to people who have been involved in the past with terrorism, or alleged major violations in this country, and those who are still waging war."

That includes fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, whom other Taliban members would have to denounce before being allowed to participate in national elections scheduled for June, Samad said.

Although Samad stressed that the government was only considering talks "with individuals who can contribute to peace and reconstruction," a report by state-run Radio Afghanistan on Monday quoted a top Karzai aide as saying talks were already underway.

Omar Daudzay said that a number of governors and other government officials have begun talks with the Taliban and that the discussions were continuing, the report said.

"We are in favor of negotiating with moderate Taliban," Khalid Pushtun, a spokesman for Kandahar Gov. Yusuf Pashtun, said in a phone interview.

"It is absolutely supported by the people of Afghanistan and by the transitional government of Afghanistan," Pushtun added. "We will try to encourage them to participate in the elections. They are citizens of Afghanistan, and we have similar rights that all Afghan people have."

Taliban members and supporters interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in eastern Afghanistan and in Pakistan this summer said relatively moderate leaders were interested in contesting the elections. Some also said discussions were underway to find a replacement for Omar, who remained at large and was believed to still be in Afghanistan.

Taliban remnants have been launching increasingly bold assaults in recent months, raiding police stations, killing aid workers and confronting U.S. troops. Fighting killed at least four U.S. troops last month. Many of the attacks have taken place in the south and east, near the Pakistani border.

The resurgent Taliban has been benefiting from a sense of alienation among Afghanistan's ethnic Pushtun majority, many of whom feel cheated by promises of reconstruction. Violence in the Pushtun heartland of eastern and southern Afghanistan has led foreign aid agencies to largely shun the area.

The decision to negotiate with Taliban leaders could boost Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan's military intelligence helped form and bring the Taliban to power in the 1990s.

During the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and its Al Qaeda network allies in late 2001, Pakistani officials floated Mutawakel's name as a leading moderate who should be part of a postwar interim government.

But leaders of the Northern Alliance, the U.S.-allied force that helped topple the Taliban, refused to give their enemies a place in the new government. This year, Northern Alliance supporters turned violent when Karzai asked Afghans to distinguish between what he called good and bad Taliban, but so far, news of Mutawakel's release hasn't sparked protests.

Former Northern Alliance military commanders contacted Tuesday, including Afghan army Chief of Staff Bismillah Khan, declined to comment.

Aides and relatives of Mutawakel first reported that he had been released Oct. 6 and said he had been moved to Kandahar, his home city and once a Taliban stronghold where support for the movement was still strong. Karzai and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad both denied it at the time.

Although the U.S. military doesn't disclose the names of alleged Taliban members and other prisoners it holds in Afghanistan, or at its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Mutawakel is believed to be the highest-ranking Taliban official to have been taken into U.S. custody.

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