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Taliban Faction Seeks Return to Power by Ballot

Offshoot of the ousted Afghan regime wants to compete in legislative elections. Some say its leaders are moderates, but others are skeptical.

October 22, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — Three years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban, a breakaway faction of the hard-line Islamic movement is trying to make a comeback by seeking government permission to participate in next year's parliamentary elections.

The former Taliban members have turned against their fugitive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and want a share of power at the ballot box, according to intelligence and diplomatic sources and Taliban leaders.

With backing from the U.S. and British governments, interim President Hamid Karzai is in the final stages of negotiations with leaders of a "moderate group" who said they were no longer involved in attacking government and foreign troops, said the sources, who included Afghan and Indian intelligence officials.

Karzai, who is expected to be elected to the post he has held since June 2002 when ballot results are announced this month, is hoping to neutralize a significant part of the insurgency by persuading the group's leaders to become lawmakers. Sources said that after persuading leaders of the group to run for the parliament, Karzai would be freer to crush the core of the insurgency.

The sources said the breakaway group was based in Quetta, Pakistan, where many Taliban fighters and supporters fled after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Indian intelligence believes that the group has the blessing of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is trying to regain influence in Afghanistan that was lost when he supported the U.S.-led war against the Taliban. Pakistan previously had been a key supporter of the Taliban government.

The negotiations are so sensitive that Karzai put his trusted brother-in-law Mohammed Ibrahim Spinzada -- known as "Engineer Ibrahim" in intelligence circles -- in charge of the talks, according to an Afghan intelligence agent who said he had read confidential memos outlining contacts with the Taliban.

On Sunday, a few days after the agent provided the information, Karzai quietly named Ibrahim to the post of co-deputy intelligence chief. Unlike the intelligence agency's other deputy, Ibrahim works out of the presidential palace -- not the agency's headquarters.

Ibrahim has recently visited the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to speak with Taliban prisoners and helped organize the release of some, to meet the Taliban faction's key condition for talks, according to the Afghan intelligence source. He spoke on condition of anonymity because his superiors had not authorized the interview.

At least 40 Afghan prisoners have been freed from Guantanamo Bay since July 2003. And U.S. military intelligence reportedly has identified eight people, including at least one Taliban commander, who returned to combat.

It is not clear if any Afghan detainees were released recently to meet the Taliban faction's conditions for negotiations.

Pentagon officials say prisoners are released when they are believed to be of no more intelligence value to interrogators and to pose no significant security risk.

Yet there is always the possibility, officials say, that a released detainee may return to the battlefield.

The breakaway Taliban faction's "leadership council" includes Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, a former senior advisor to Omar, and Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, the Taliban-era foreign minister, the Afghan and Indian intelligence sources said.

A senior official in India's intelligence agency, which keeps a close watch on Afghanistan because of India's rivalry with neighboring Pakistan, said both Mutawakel and Hashemi had recently been in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to hold talks with the government.

Mutawakel and Hashemi are seen as relative moderates among the Taliban's leadership. But many question whether they are moderates, given that they publicly defended Osama bin Laden after the United Nations imposed sanctions in December 2000 on the Taliban leaders for refusing to hand over the Al Qaeda chief.

In a 2001 lecture at USC, Hashemi insisted that the Taliban had put Bin Laden on trial for 45 days and found no evidence that he was involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"So we think that maybe these guys are looking for a bogey man now," Hashemi said of Washington.

The slightest hint of reconciliation with the Taliban angers leaders of the Afghan Northern Alliance, which provided most of the ground forces in the U.S.-led war to oust the Taliban, and had battled the Islamic extremists for several years before that.

"All Taliban groups are criminals," said Brig. Gen. Bismullah Khan, the Afghan military's chief of general staff and a former Northern Alliance commander. "I know that they are trying to form different groups, different factions, and they are also trying to show one group as normal Taliban and one as extremist Taliban. But I say that all of them are criminals, and the killers of the Afghan nation. They do not deserve to be negotiated with."

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