Afghanistan courts Taliban moderates

Unofficial amnesty aims to undercut insurgency

formal program expected

April 15, 2005|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan - The Afghan government has a message for Taliban members hiding in the mountains or other countries: Come home.

Taliban members who are not criminals are welcome in the new Afghanistan, officials say. The government's goal is to weaken the Taliban insurgency, especially before the crucial parliamentary elections this fall.

"Every Afghan who has not returned because of fear, they should no longer have that fear," presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said. "They should come back."

That has been the government's unofficial policy for three years, almost since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. But in recent months officials have courted Taliban members aggressively. The negotiations have been kept quiet, and they often involve sending tribal leaders to meet with Taliban members in remote areas. President Hamid Karzai is soon expected to announce details of an official amnesty program.

The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan also has supported amnesty for moderate Taliban members because it could help undercut the insurgency. But the amnesty process has been controversial, especially among people who believe all former Taliban members should face trial.

"The government is making a mistake," said Abdulkhalegh Zaligh, the deputy governor of Bamiyan province, where many people suffered at the hands of the Taliban. "The element called `Talib' will bring destruction to Afghanistan again. It's not a good idea to bring them back."

The government is keeping quiet about much of the negotiations. A new reconciliation commission was named in late March. Because a formal program has not been announced, the informal amnesty granted varies in different provinces. In Khost province, the governor hands out letters to returning Taliban members. In Kandahar province, the governor has offered to give agreeable Taliban members their property back. In Nangarhar province, the deputy governor says he knows little about amnesty.

The details are difficult to negotiate. A process for determining who is responsible for criminal acts - a soldier, a commander or a former government minister - has not been worked out. Officials say a former Taliban member's guilt is determined by fellow villagers, a process that seems unworkable.

"I know people who have been tortured, who have been in trouble with the Taliban," Ahmed Zia Langari, a commissioner with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "They don't want the Taliban to come back anywhere."

But people from southern Afghanistan portray Taliban support as necessary for the country's future. They are from the same Pashtun tribe and say the Taliban regime brought security to Afghanistan after years of warring among militias. They call the Taliban "the sons of the soil" and say the new government could use a touch of the former regime.

"The people who got rid of the country's problems are the Taliban," said Mohammadshah Kamranai, a tribal elder from Paktika province. "This is an Islamic country. They are Muslims. They should all come back."

At least 10 senior Taliban leaders and many more junior members have returned, despite not having a formal process, Ludin said. But few have done so publicly. Most are nervous to talk and still fear they will be arrested.

On a recent spring afternoon, about a dozen former Taliban members sat on a concrete slab outside a Kabul gas station. They chatted and fingered prayer beads, but they refused to comment publicly.

"We are not allowed to talk," said Abdul Hakim Munib, a one-time senior Taliban leader.

Merajuddin Pathan, the governor of Khost, said he started giving radio speeches in January that were also broadcast in the bordering tribal areas of Pakistan. He asked Taliban members to come and help develop the country.

Pathan said he also has sent messengers to Pakistan, telling people it is safe to come back. About 20 Taliban members have knocked on his door, even at midnight, Pathan said. He has given them letters showing that their return has been approved by the government. Some have thwarted insurgent attacks, informing on one planned at a border post in March, he said.

"In the Taliban, there will be some die-hards," Pathan said. "But if we follow the path we're on, I promise you that 90 percent of them will come home. It depends on us, actually."

Former Taliban member Abdul Salam Rocketi said he has traveled three times in the past two months from Kabul south to his home of Zabul province, long torn apart by the insurgency. He wanted to persuade people to return. Twice, no one showed up at proposed meetings. The third time, he said, he met with a high-ranking Taliban member from Zabul along the border with Pakistan.

"I asked him not to go to the mountains again, not to fight the government," recalled Rocketi, who earned his name because of his ability with a rocket launcher. "He was afraid he would be arrested. He also said they had declared a jihad against the government."

Rocketi, once the top Taliban military commander in the eastern city of Jalalabad, returned to Kabul about two years ago. He said all former Taliban members should be welcomed as have the country's former warlords, once accused of crimes but now government officials.

"Show me the people or the period where they don't have blood on their hands," he said. "All bad memories and bad actions should be thrown in the river."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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