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Bosom Buddies

This month, the Afghan leaders gathered in Kabul for a loya jirga, or grand council, agreed on a new, progressive constitution for this war-torn country. Unfortunately, Afghan officials say, the new constitution will not guarantee security. In fact, in recent months violence has risen sharply across Afghanistan, much of it instigated by Islamist Taliban remnants who despise President Hamid Karzai's vision of a liberal state. Aid workers and Afghan moderates are being killed almost daily, and Washington fears the fighting could scuttle reconstruction and even bring a fundamentalist government back to power.

With chaos rising, the United States and its Afghan allies have turned to an unlikely savior: the former Taliban leaders themselves. The United States and Karzai's government harbor the quixotic hope that the men American officials call "moderate Taliban elements" will convince their peers to cease violence and join the Afghan rebuilding effort. In fact, over the past five months, Afghan government leaders and allegedly even top American officials have been engaged in secret parleys with Taliban chiefs—with Afghan officials allegedly looking the other way as Taliban commanders "escape" from jail in plain sight of their guards.

LAW AND ORDER is deteriorating across Afghanistan. Conditions have become particularly volatile in the Taliban's traditional stronghold, the Pashtun south, where former regime remnants have upped the ante against U.S.-led coalition forces since mid-August. Some 500 people, many of them civilians, soldiers, and aid workers, have been killed in Afghanistan in that time period, a sharp rise over last year. Last week, the Taliban reportedly killed at least 27 people over a three-day period. This violence has forced international aid organizations to limit their operations in the south and has raised doubts about the viability of national elections next year.

Tasked with overseeing the loya jirga, a national census, and elections next year—and possessing a small budget—Karzai's government has been unable to impose the rule of law. In fact, except in Kabul, the national government is essentially powerless across the country's 32 provinces. Officials in Kabul say the International Security Assistance Force, the primary peacekeeper in Afghanistan, has tenaciously tried to stabilize the country, launching operations in the mountains of the rugged southwest to root out remaining Taliban. But these have not been wholly successful. "We have tried everything ... to weaken their strength" but have not lowered the level of violence, says one Afghan official. Meanwhile, analysts in Kabul say the United States wants to spend less money on battling the Taliban and more on rebuilding the country.

So the Afghan government and their American patrons have resorted to desperate measures. Officials in Kabul say plans to cultivate so-called moderate Taliban and use them to convince the fundamentalist militia to stop fighting were developed by Karzai and the United States over the past five months. These plans, they say, were given the thumbs-up by the White House when U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited Afghanistan in October. Since then, Afghan officials have begun negotiations with many top Taliban leaders, including several Taliban in U.S. custody. "We'd been trying to explore every possible option, ... holding dialogues with different factions" of the Taliban, says one senior Afghan government official. "We cannot kill all of them."

In fact, officials say, the United States has even secretly allowed the release of several top Taliban leaders, freeing them from detention at Bagram Air Base near Kabul so they can talk with Karzai's government. Even more surprising, Taliban insiders say Afghan officials essentially allowed 42 Taliban commanders, who were arrested after recent gun battles with coalition forces, to break out of jail in Kandahar in the hopes that these men would enter a dialogue with Karzai. The commanders, including important leaders like the brother of the former Taliban defense minister, fled by digging a 30-yard- long tunnel from their jail to a point outside on October 10. It looked like a jailbreak, but it was essentially a release, says a Taliban source. He explained that, since the Kandahar jail is one of the most secure in Afghanistan, it is almost impossible that anyone could dig such a tunnel without the authorities knowing about it. In fact, Taliban insiders say, at the time of the Kandahar jailbreak, vehicles were parked at the end of the tunnel, clearly visible to prison guards. "Most of these militants simply came out of this tunnel, jumped into these vehicles, and were whisked away to their hideouts" without any resistance from prison officials, says a source.

According to Taliban sources, Mullah Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, foreign minister in the former Taliban regime, was one of those released from Bagram in early October. They say the mullah was flown to Kandahar for a clandestine meeting with Armitage on October 5. "[Mutawakil] was released from the custody ... so that he could initiate dialogues with Taliban leaders who are on the same wavelength with him," says a source. The source says that the meeting with Armitage was arranged because Mutawakil wanted some direct guarantees of his security from the United States before he would proceed with this task. Reassured, Mutawakil has begun discussions with Karzai's government in secret locations in Kabul while simultaneously talking with Taliban leaders close to Al Qaeda members. (Though Mutawakil's family and other independent sources confirm his release, Karzai and the American authorities in Kabul deny that it has taken place. A State Department official in Washington also says that Armitage never met with Mutawakil.)

Sources say Karzai's government considered using several dozen Taliban leaders as liaisons to the fundamentalist militia, but Mutawakil was chosen because he supposedly carries significant weight within the Taliban ranks. Karzai's government also supposedly considered the mullah a moderate: Mutawakil opposed the Taliban's destruction of Buddha statues in the town of Bamiyan in March 2001 and, in fall 2001, tried to persuade hard-line Taliban leader Mullah Omar to hand Osama bin Laden to the United States in order to ensure the Taliban's survival. Nonetheless, Mutawakil is hardly a saint: He has long been close to Mullah Omar, and Indian intelligence considers him a suspect in the hijacking of an Indian airliner in December 1999.

What's more, people familiar with the Taliban's structure doubt that Mutawakil can deliver on his promise to bring Taliban leaders over to Karzai's side. Though Mutawakil was a top leader, Mullah Omar runs the Taliban with an iron fist, and he alone enjoys the commanders' respect, says Ismail Khoso, a Pakistani journalist who covers the Taliban. Khoso says that, once a Taliban member like Mutawakil begins talking to the enemy, he is quickly disowned by Omar and becomes persona non grata within the militia. "The ones [Mullah Omar] disassociates himself from, they become zero in the network," Khoso says. Learning of Mutawakil's maneuvers, the Taliban has already affirmed that the former foreign minister will get nowhere with his plan. "The only people who can speak on behalf of the Taliban are those assigned by Mullah Omar," read a recent statement issued by Mufti Abdul Latif Hakimi, Omar's spokesman, from his hideout somewhere in southern Afghanistan.

In fact, experts on the Taliban say that the group is as much a cult as a mass movement. "It's a movement because many of its cadres are ready to give their lives for a cause they believe [to be] supreme, but it's a cult because its cadres are ready to fight [essentially] for Mullah Omar," says another Pakistani journalist close to the Taliban. Many Taliban guerrillas pay no heed to anyone other than their supreme leader; they fight and kill only when they receive a message from Omar. As a result, the journalist says, it will be nearly impossible for anyone other than Omar to bring the Taliban to the side of peace: "The movement can only die if their one-eyed spiritual leader dies or he asks them to bury the hatchet." Good luck.