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Afghan negotiator seeks to build bridge between US, Taliban

KABUL — Abdul Hakim Mujahid turned on the TV in his home office in the Queens borough of New York City and watched the images of fire and smoke and dust spread across the screen.

It was Sept. 11, 2001. The Taliban’s ambassador to the United Nations realized his time in America had ended.

“I knew that the United States government would not allow the Taliban to stay in power in Afghanistan for very long,” he said. Federal authorities ensured his safe passage to Pakistan, where he owned a home.

“I had tried to make a bridge between the Taliban and the United States for four years in the United Nations,” he said. “Now I am trying again to make a bridge.”

Today, Mujahid serves as the first deputy of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a panel appointed by President Hamid Karzai to lead negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgent factions.

“You cannot achieve a lasting peace through a military operation,” Mujahid said in a recent interview with Stars and Stripes. “There has to be a political solution.”

In the wake of April’s high-profile militant attacks in Kabul and three eastern cities, the prospects for such a solution would appear as dark as the black smoke that spiraled above the capital from the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades.

Mujahid nonetheless insisted that the Afghan government and the U.S.-led NATO coalition must continue to pursue an end to the bloodshed, even as the Taliban has vowed to keep fighting in the meantime.

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“The United States has spent billions of dollars and lost almost 2,000 (troops),” he said. “The Afghans have lost 2 million people during more than 30 years of war. We have to find peace.”

A day before the April 15 attacks, Karzai had announced the appointment of Salahuddin Rabbani as the peace council’s new chairman. He succeeds his father, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan who was among Karzai’s closest diplomatic allies here before his murder last September.

A man with a bomb concealed in his turban and posing as a Taliban emissary killed the elder Rabbani during a meeting at his Kabul home. The council, whose 70 members represent Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, has since struggled to re-establish its authority while questions linger about its credibility.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels nonprofit advocacy organization, released a report in March that skewered Karzai and top Afghan officials for a “half-hearted and haphazard” approach to negotiations with the Taliban. The report criticized the peace council as “largely symbolic” and “rife with factional and ethnic divisions.”

The panel’s reputation sank deeper last month when one of its leading members, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, reportedly fled Afghanistan after U.S. authorities attempted to question him in connection with a terrorism investigation.

Doubts concerning the council’s legitimacy parallel the broader skepticism prevalent in Afghanistan about a peace process that has been imperiled by a string of recent controversies involving U.S. troops.

The latest debacle came to light last month, when the Los Angeles Times published photos that show U.S. soldiers posing with the body of a dead insurgent.

In January, a video surfaced on YouTube that showed four Marines urinating on the corpses of slain Taliban fighters. Weeks later, U.S. soldiers at Bagram Air Base burned several copies of the Quran, triggering a week of violent protests across the country. In March, a suspect identified by the military as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was accused of gunning down 17 Afghan civilians in Kandahar.

Soon after the shootings, the Taliban withdrew from preliminary peace discussions, blaming U.S. officials for “shaky, erratic and vague” statements on the process.

Amid conflicting reports about the Taliban’s willingness to resume “talks about talks,” as the sputtering negotiations have become known, the peace council has sought to rekindle reconciliation efforts.

A central player in the campaign is Mujahid, 57, who with Zaeef’s departure ranks as perhaps the most important former Taliban figure in the Karzai government. The International Crisis Group places him among a core group of Afghan officials considered vital to brokering a cease-fire.

Mujahid believes the chances for a peace settlement with the Islamist militia depend on the country’s democratic government embracing a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, favored by the Taliban.

The Karzai government adheres to Islamic tenets as laid out in the Afghan constitution and recognizes Islam as the state religion. The fledgling democracy has so far resisted a rigid application of Sharia, condemned by Western leaders for its harsh penal code and severe restrictions on women and religious freedom.

In Mujahid’s view, forging a compromise between the Taliban and Afghan government will require support from U.S. officials that stops short of interference with the evolution of the country’s own brand of democracy.

“The United States does not understand the Taliban,” he said. “They are a traditional people, not revolutionary. They want a traditional Islamic government, which is what Afghanistan had for more than 1,000 years. You can have a democracy, but not every democracy has to be the same.”

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The murder last fall of Burhanuddin Rabbani, beyond disrupting the peace process, revealed that the council’s influence could be ascribed almost entirely to one man. Few members knew of the furtive meetings he had held with Taliban representatives in the months before his assassination.

“If we had been aware of these contacts, we could have checked them and he might still be living today,” said Mujahid, who assumed a larger leadership role following Rabbani’s death. “This would have also helped the High Peace Council to show how it is working toward a solution.”

He talked as morning sunshine spilled through the windows of his office in a quiet neighborhood of Kabul. The building, guarded by Afghan police, sits less than three miles from the U.S. Embassy and a NATO base that militants targeted during their recent siege.

Mujahid speaks fluent English, and his eloquence, along with his gold-framed glasses and dark beard, lend him a professorial mien. He grew up in the eastern province of Paktika, and as he tells the story, he escaped to Pakistan at age 24 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

His political ambitions flowered across the border, where he joined Khudda ul-Furqan, an Islamist party whose name translates as “Servants of Providence,” and later ascended to various leadership posts.

Not long after the Soviets pulled out in 1989, he returned to Afghanistan in his role as a Khudda ul-Furqan official, only to leave again as civil war roiled the country.

Back in Pakistan, he and other party leaders joined the Taliban movement in 1994, and months after the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996, Mujahid found himself headed to New York and the United Nations.

In discussing his latest attempt to “make a bridge” between the Taliban and the West, Mujahid came across as an apologist for the toppled regime, offering a counternarrative that revises what he regards as misperceptions about the Taliban’s reign.

“They brought peace and security to 95 percent of Afghanistan, from one end of the country to the other, from Kabul to Herat,” he asserted. “There had been several years of civil war when people were afraid to go outside their homes and villages. Now you could drive a car full of gold and no one would search you.”

Mujahid conceded that the Taliban drove women from public view. But he contended employment and education opportunities remained available to them — albeit “in secret” — because “it is obligatory according to Islamic teachings.”

On an international level, he claimed, “The Taliban had no enmity against the United States government. They wanted friendly relations.”

His account diverges in the extreme from those of U.S. government agencies and international human rights groups that documented a broad range of abuses sanctioned under the Taliban.

Soon after taking Kabul in 1996, the Taliban, primarily ethnic Pashtuns from the country’s south, sought to purge minority populations from Afghanistan, including the Hazara and Tajiks. Thousands were killed, imprisoned or expelled. The regime invoked Sharia to justify torture of prisoners and made a public spectacle of executions and amputations.

The violence earned the Taliban “one of the world’s worst human rights records,” according to a 2001 report by the State Department.

Women were required to wear full-body burqas, and subjected to execution, rape, abduction and forced marriages. They were largely banned from working, attending school and seeking medical treatment. Physicians for Human Rights asserted in a 1998 report that “the extent to which the Taliban has threatened the human rights of Afghan women is unparalleled in recent history.”

As for the regime’s relationship with America, the State Department found that the Taliban provided sanctuary to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Mujahid referred to the 9/11 attacks as “a horrible time.” Though he emphasized that no Afghans were linked to the plot, “It was not hard to understand America’s anger,” he said. “So many people were killed, thousands of innocent people.”

He said he had urged Taliban leaders in Kabul to send a letter of condolence to American officials. They spurned his advice on the grounds that the U.S. government had refused to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate ruling authority.

Eleven years later, Mujahid doubts the letter would have changed the arc of history, but he called the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan “a mistake” that has damaged both countries.

“It was wrong for the United States government to collapse the Taliban regime while totally ignoring that you needed the Taliban to be involved in Afghanistan policy or you would get this.”

He means an insurgency that for 11 years has fought the NATO coalition to a stalemate.

“The Taliban was never a political organization,” Mujahid contended. “It is a religious movement in the region, not just Afghanistan. When the U.S. came in 2001, they did not consider how deep the movement is in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and other countries.”

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Mujahid and a handful of allies revived Khudda ul-Furqan in Pakistan in late 2001, weeks after the Taliban’s fall, and he moved to Kabul four years later. Karzai appointed him and three other party members to the newly formed High Peace Council in 2010.

He remains in contact with the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership council based in Pakistan. Despite the Taliban’s removal from power in Afghanistan, he described them as wielding far more clout than U.S. political and military officials claim.

“In every district of every province, you have a Taliban governor, a military commander and a judge,” he said. “They are settling disputes using Sharia because this is what the people know. People go to them because the Taliban is better known to them than the (Karzai) government.”

As evidence that the strict reading of Islamic law applied by the Taliban during its reign can nurture peace, Mujahid pointed to the relative stability of Saudi Arabia in recent decades.

His assertion, if omitting the sometimes heavy-handed tactics of Saudi leaders, exposes the divide between Western and Afghan perspectives on a government rooted in Islam.

“Democracy is the model of government chosen by the majority of Afghan people — and accepted by the national minority — but it has limits in different countries,” he said.

The International Crisis Group, in its report on the state of reconciliation in Afghanistan, raised questions about the High Peace Council’s ability to persuade insurgent factions to take part in discussions.

Mujahid defended the council’s standing — “It does not get involved in every single step, but it is heading the process with the full support of the president and the government” — while reframing the context of peace talks.

“The real negotiation is between the people of Afghanistan and the armed opposition,” he said. “That is not to forget the role of the Western countries, led by the United States. Their role is very, very, very important in bringing the insurgents to the table to discuss reconciliation.”

Keeping them at the table, however, could require alterations to a Western-styled democracy that has proven to be a poor fit for Afghanistan, Mujahid said.

“This is a backward country by modern standards, but it is a very proud country, very proud of its history and traditions,” Mujahid said.

“There are tribal and ethnic differences here, but the people come together in their Islamic beliefs. The Western countries must accept the national interests and wishes of the Afghan people, to respect their sovereignty and independence.”

To Mujahid, allowing the nation to enact Islamic law in its more traditional, conservative form — an unpalatable scenario to the West — might offer the only hope of persuading the Taliban to stop fighting.

“We are known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” he said. “This is who we are.”

kuzm@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @martinkuz

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