KABUL – The super defector entered the media-packed ballroom of the splendidly dilapidated Intercontinental hotel like he was Clint Eastwood at the Cannes film festival. He kept his turban – and his cool.
The super defector is Mullah Khaksar Akhund, the former deputy minister of the interior for the Taliban. When the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996 he was minister of security.
Akhund is very much an insider with Taliban intelligence – which is not, as cynics might infer, a contradiction in terms: they communicate with radios powerful enough to tune into as far as Moscow, and they definitely know what’s happening on the ground in Afghan – unlike the US intelligence services that have been sending e-mail messages to journalists in Kabul trying to gather fresh information. Akhund also bears the closest resemblance to that elusive specimen – the “moderate Taliban.”
Akhund’s highly publicized photo op was a convoluted operation mounted by the foreign ministry of the Islamic States of Afghanistan – that is, the Northern Alliance people actually in power in Kabul. The tone was definitely theater of the absurd, and the mullah even supplied a mantra, “I never left Kabul.” He blamed the Afghan drama on “interference from other countries,” and stressed that Afghans should “unite together to fight those interfering.” He said that “a lot of people were martyred.” He “wants to make one Afghanistan” and of course he “wants to participate in the peace process.” And, most important of all, he announced his support to the United Front – in theory the Northern Alliance plus other Afghan parties minus the Taliban.
But he is not in Bonn to participate in the UN-sponsored peace conference of theoretically all Afghan parties. He said a vague “the people” would decide about that. He is in favor of a loya jirga, which would be the second step in Lakhdar Brahimi’s UN plan.
But is he or is he not a Taliban? He says that “he never left the Taliban. I have been in Kabul for the last five years. The Taliban left Kabul. I never left Kabul.” For him, “the Taliban left Kabul because the United Front was stronger.” Essentially, Akhund is trying to position himself as part of the significant minority of Pashtuns in Kabul now involved, in his own words, “in work for the betterment of Afghanistan to bring all ethnic groups together.”
Akhund’s credentials seem to fit his new-found moderate, politically correct public persona. For many years, he says, he had discussions with the legendary Ahmad Shah Masoud, the assassinated former army chief of the Northern Alliance, which has now visibly embraced him.
He is not exactly fond of the Al-Qaeda Arabs. “I told the Taliban that under foreign fighters there cannot be peace in Afghanistan.” He says that “Al-Qaeda is all over Afghanistan.” And he agrees that “Osama [bin Laden] is an international terrorist.” But he refuses to tell where bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar actually are – much to the disappointment of the global media. With a perverse smile, he said that “probably” the two men are in contact with each other.
Akhund condemned the UN for “always considering the Taliban as a warring faction” – and this might explain why he is not part of the Bonn conference. He prefers to stay in Kabul and enjoy the camaraderie with his “mujahideen brothers.” He is definitely living a happy life on their side and free of the Taliban. “I can move freely. I have my own private car. And I have not committed any actions against humanity.” Akhund left the Intercontinental back to his new breezy life in the backseat of a 4X4 bearing a poster of Masoud on the windshield.
While “moderate Taliban” reposition themselves for the new realities and the UN follows its ultra-complex, five-step Brahimi peace plan for Afghanistan – which started this week with the Bonn meeting – the still deliriously happy Kabulis are certain that former king Zahir Shah will come back any day soon in a golden chariot and lead them to a bright new peaceful era.
Meanwhile, events change at breakneck speed. Who could imagine just a few days ago that 1,000 unveiled Afghan women would be out in the streets demanding more rights, and specially the right to work and to receive an education – and all of this filmed by Afghan TV, and broadcast on the nightly news by a couple of anchors, one wearing a light blue scarf, and not even a burqa.
Once again loads of weapons are being dumped in Afghanistan – not only by Russia, but also by Iran and Pakistan. This would figure with the nightmarish scenario of the return of the mujahideen wars of the 1992-1996 period. On man, though, remains unflappably confident about the future. Groomed by Masoud himself, Abdullah Abdullah is now ready to make his grand entrance on the world stage as the alliance’s foreign minister. He is not in Germany, though: the Northern Alliance’s top representative is Younous Qanooni, the acting minister of the interior, and currently Kabul’s busiest man. But Abdullah, a qualified medical doctor and fluent English speaker, is definitely the voice of an emerging, hopefully modern Afghanistan. He recently shared some thoughts with Asia Times Online.
Asia Times Online: There are widespread fears that a balkanization of Afghanistan is almost inevitable – the country will be divided.
Dr. Abdullah: This is not the feeling of the Afghan people. This is not my feeling. There is a cement that kept Afghan people together – despite the efforts from outside to divide Afghanistan. All Afghans consider themselves as Afghans. Then the situation has changed, inside Afghanistan as well as in the region and in the international community – to the positive. We will be helped to keep Afghanistan united.
Asia Times Online: Walking around Kabul and talking to average Afghanis in the bazaars, 10 people in 10 say the same thing: They are expecting King Zahir Shah to come back. This is the popular expectation. How do you react to it?
Dr. Abdullah: There is no reaction from my side. I would say I accent that there is some nostalgia and that there are some good feelings as well about it. The people remember that there was peace under the former king, and the former king has not fought against other Afghan groups, he has not been part of the war of the past two decades, this might help, or might give him the chance to play a role in making peace. Then the realistic expectation would be that he has influence over the situation, he has some credibility with the international community as well as in Afghanistan; that credibility, that influence should be used, should be seized in order to achieve peace and to give the people of Afghanistan the right of self-determination.
Asia Times Online: Do you think it is realistic to expect a strong central government in Kabul capable of influencing the way the provinces are governed – considering that many governors will be extremely powerful and very well armed?
Dr. Abdullah: Not only because of that situation, but also because of the new realities of the situation in Afghanistan, there is some polarization. Nevertheless, among the Afghans, I think a strong central government might not be a recipe for a lasting peace in Afghanistan, while local authorities with more power, with affiliation to the central government, might be a solution. We are thinking of something in the middle.
Asia Times Online: Are you going to be pushing for this kind of settlement in the conference in Germany? A sort of decentralized government with lots of autonomy for the provinces?
Dr. Abdullah: I would not say that this will be decided on in this conference. This conference will be the framework, the road map, how we decide to go ahead towards the formation of a broad-based government.
Asia Times Online: What about the lack of substantial Pashtun representation in Germany?
Dr. Abdullah: Of course there are Pashtuns in Germany, many of them.
Asia Times Online: Are you afraid that the Taliban will be able to survive as a guerrilla movement and disrupt any kind of broad-based government in Kabul?
Dr. Abdullah: No. A guerrilla force, the first thing it requires is popular support. They lack popular support. There’s no chance.