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Former Taliban Fighters Brave a New Battlefield

One ex-guerrilla leads a race for parliament, where he hopes to win with words, not rockets.

October 05, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

QALAT, Afghanistan — Mullah Abdul Salam used to fire a grenade launcher with such lethal skill that his guerrilla comrades renamed him Rocketi, or the Rocketman.

Today, after giving up guns for politics, the former Taliban commander is leading his province's race for a seat in parliament, where he hopes his debating skills will prove as sharp as his aim.

"In the past, we finished off our enemies with rockets," said the mullah, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his spartan office here. Now, he added, "we will get rid of them with reason and concentration."

Much like his country's struggle to end more than 26 years of war, Rocketi's success as a democrat may depend on whether old foes agree that talking is better than killing. The mullah says he has received repeated threats from both the Taliban and supporters of the Northern Alliance, which helped U.S. forces remove the extremist regime in 2001.

With U.S. support, President Hamid Karzai has offered amnesty to most Taliban members, and encouraged them to help build a democracy. Rocketi was one of at least eight prominent Taliban leaders who took the offer and ran for parliament. Most of the rest appear headed for defeat at polls in strongholds they lost on the battlefield four years ago.

With about half the ballots from the Sept. 18 elections counted and certified, Rocketi is the front-runner for one of three seats in the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People, allocated to southern Zabol province.

Voters have delivered the most dramatic defeat to former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, who was regarded as a moderate by Western governments. He is running 31st, with less than 1% of the vote, for Kandahar province's 11 seats. Maulvi Qalamuddin, who once led the notorious Department for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, and Mullah Abdul Samad Khaksar, former deputy interior minister in the Taliban regime, are also headed for defeat.

In Wardak province, Haji Musa Hotak, a former Taliban battalion commander in the central region of the province, is battling for fourth place, but only the top three male candidates will go to parliament. As in other provinces, two of Wardak's five seats are reserved for women.

Younis Qanooni, a former Northern Alliance leader who is running second among the candidates for Kabul's 33 seats, says he's willing to forgive and forget Rocketi's past.

"As he steps into parliament, his life might be a new page. And to respect the people's welfare, we have to respect him too," Qanooni said. "We cannot speak negatively about his past."

Rocketi says he can imagine shaking Qanooni's hand one day, but expects very heated debate, or worse, before politicians can bury many hatchets.

"There will certainly be many arguments in parliament, because there will be different factions, and many people accusing each other of destroying Afghanistan -- not only Qanooni, but also communists," he said. "And I will definitely fight the communists there."

Rocketi was a teenager when he became a guerrilla fighter, first against an Afghan communist government and then against the Soviet troops that invaded in 1979.

When he was 20, a guerrilla commander nicknamed him Rocketi because of his prowess with rocket-propelled grenades and antitank rockets. He took it as a formal name, and it was one of 22 on the ballot in Zabol.

"My specialty was going very close to an enemy tank," he said. "And I always took my time in firing a rocket. I didn't waste any and I usually hit my target. I was brave and didn't lose my morale. I was never reckless."

Rocketi said he joined the Taliban soon after it seized Kabul in September 1996. He acknowledges being a corps commander in the eastern province of Nangarhar, and leading another unit in Kabul.

Human rights activists complain that commanders from several factions in the Afghan civil war, including the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, have gotten away with war crimes because Karzai and his foreign backers have failed to prosecute them.

Rocketi insists that American interrogators cleared him of any wrongdoing when they released him in the winter of 2002, about eight months after he surrendered along with almost 50 other Taliban fighters. He said the Americans questioned him for several weeks at a house in Kabul, usually over tea and fruit.

"They told me I could answer whatever questions I wanted, and those I didn't want to answer were not a big problem," he said. "So it was sort of very friendly."

The mullah insists he knew nothing of the Taliban's close ties to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. Qanooni questions that.

The existence of foreign fighters inside the Taliban was obvious and well known, Qanooni said. "If someone is trying to say he didn't know about this, indeed he is closing his eyes to the truth."

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