Sunday, April 22, 2007

[wvns] Interview With Ex-Taliban Foreign Minister

Interview With Ex-Taliban Foreign Minister
By Chris Sands
Journalist - Afghanistan

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A site of a huge blast in an ammunition shop in Kabul, March 14,
2007.(Reuters photo)


There was a time in recent memory when the people here had nothing
but God and a Kalashnikov to keep them safe. In the 1990s
Afghanistan was imploding but few in the West cared. Those with
power abused it, those with wealth flaunted it, and everyone else
lived in the knowledge that each morning could be their last.
Back then, Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil was just another young man
whose father had been killed during the Soviet occupation. He needed
a reason to hope and one day he found it. By his mid-20s he was at
the forefront of a movement that first stabilised the country, then
allegedly helped bring war to America and changed the way Islam was
perceived across the world.

"At the time I started with the Taliban every village had its own
government and very dangerous issues threatened Afghanistan," he
said. "Every government was making a new currency, every government
had its own ministry of defence, everyone had their own private
airports.

"We had no other purpose, it was just to give the country freedom.
We did not represent any other government."

"For the purpose of stopping the division of the country and solving
the problems inside the country ? improving the transportation
system and saving innocent people from warlords and their rockets ?
the Taliban movement was set up. And a thousand people like me
joined it. We had no other purpose, it was just to give the country
freedom. We did not represent any other government and we did not
stand for anyone else."

"No Other Purpose"

The kind of impoverished, deeply religious young men still found
across Afghanistan formed the Taliban. They were initially welcomed
as saviours by a population tired of having old Mujahideen
commanders kill and kidnap at will.

"We wanted a peaceful Afghanistan and good relations with other
countries," Mutawakil said. "Now people think the Taliban wanted to
make a country full of terrorists, but we didn't want that."

Less than two years after capturing Kandahar, they rolled into
Kabul, bringing a fragile peace to the devastated city and imposing
their strict interpretation of the Quran on its people.

With Mutawakil working as spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah
Mohammed Omar and later as foreign minister, the new government
banned music and kite flying, sanctioned capital punishment and
forced all men to grow beards.

"We hoped our laws would bring freedom to everyone in every part of
their life, but we did not have lots of facilities," Mutawakil
said. "Nowadays lots of countries are giving donations to
Afghanistan, but at that time they were only wagging their fingers
at us and complaining."

The most notorious edicts were aimed at the female population. Women
were not allowed out alone and when they were in public they had to
cover their entire bodies. It was said that girls were stopped from
going to school.

"We are against co-education, but we are happy with separate
education," Mutawakil insisted. "For example, in Saudi Arabia and
other Arab countries people are studying separately, which is
according to Islamic law. If women wear the hijab they can go to
school."

Hard Times in Power

"The only solution was for the Arabs to live here quietly, safely,
as immigrants ... not as fighters."

After capturing the south and Kabul, the Taliban pushed onwards in
an effort to establish control over the whole country. A movement of
rival warlords known as the Northern Alliance put up fierce
resistance and appealed for outside support in its struggle against
the new government. Untold numbers of people were maimed and killed
by both sides, many of them civilians.

But the West only really began to take notice of what was happening
when Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, a country he had
helped liberate from Soviet occupation while fighting alongside
other jihadists.

The Saudi was now regarded as a terrorist by Washington and he soon
became a close ally of the Taliban, encouraging more foreign
militants to come and join those who had remained in the country
since the 1980s.

"We did not hate them, we had a sort of love in our hearts for
them. But it was not worth the price for us ? it was not worth
putting our lives in danger, which is what happened," Mutawakil said.

"The only solution was for the Arabs to live here quietly, safely,
as immigrants. They should have lived here as immigrants, not as
fighters."

Mutawakil denied the Taliban had any prior knowledge of 9/11 and he
believes the US may already have been planning to overthrow the
regime before New York and Washington were hit.

Four months after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan started, the
foreign minister handed himself over to the local authorities. He
was held for a night and then transferred to American custody, where
he remained for most of the next two years.

"I think inside the Afghan government there are people who are far
worse criminals than the Taliban."

It is not easy to meet Mutawakil now. Private security guards stand
watch outside his home and he claims the government keeps track of
his every move.

On a freezing cold January morning he agreed to this exclusive
interview. A friendly bespectacled man, he talked in Pashto for
almost two hours about his life and the difficulties Afghanistan
faces.

"All of our problems were not solved under the Taliban," he
said. "But the interesting thing from that time, and lots of people
are remembering this now, is the tight security there was in the
country.

"When the new regime came people had lots of hope, but one day they
found out nothing was happening and they had even lost the tight
security they had under the Taliban."

New Return?

"The biggest problem now faced by the world is that it does not know
the exact definition of terrorism"

About 4,000 people are estimated to have died in the insurgency last
year, a body count roughly four times higher than in 2005 and the
worst since the invasion. Indiscriminate suicide attacks are common
now, as are reports of NATO-led forces killing civilians in air
strikes and shootings. The Taliban already control areas close to
Kabul city and further violence is expected following the winter.
Mutawakil believes the only way to stop the situation escalating
into a nationwide jihad is for the Karzai administration and its
allies to open high-level talks with the insurgents.

"Now the foreigners think all the Taliban are terrorists," he
said. "I think inside the Afghan government there are people who
are far worse criminals than the Taliban, they have committed many
crimes.

"So the best way is to forgive everyone. It's better to start
negotiations. Of course there will be problems as the foreigners
don't like the Taliban and call them terrorists, and the Taliban
don't like the foreigners, but the best way is to start
negotiations. By negotiations we can move forward step by step.

"The biggest problem now faced by the world is that it does not know
the exact definition of terrorism; who is a terrorist, where are the
terrorists. I think that terrorism can be in every society, it's not
unique to any tribe, to any religion, to any person –you can have it
everywhere."

But with NATO determined to defeat the insurgency by force, corrupt
warlords still holding the reins of power and more heavy fighting
due in the spring, it looks like the kind of anger that first
launched the Taliban will explode into the open once again.

"There is no hope for the people - their hearts are broken,"
Mutawakil said.


Chris Sands is a British freelance journalist and photographer who
has lived in Kabul since August 2005. Before making Afghanistan his
home, he spent four years reporting from the Occupied Palestinian
Territories, Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. His work is
published by a number of international newspapers, magazines, and
websites.

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