A Possible Taleban interlocutor
The unspeakable tragedy of the floods in Pakistan, on a scale unknown to man, has dwarfed much else in the region: 100 shot dead in three days of political, ethnic and sectarian violence in Karachi, the cloudburst in Leh, the Koochi (Pushotoon shepherds) and Hazara clashes, ironically, in Kabul’s Darul Aman or haven of peace.
Before I meander, let me focus on just one image, here in Kabul, which may provide a clue (among other such clues) to the Afghan jigsaw.
Through a maze of contacts, I am invited to meet Mullah Abdus Salaam Zaeef who, at 42, is a veteran of dramatic experiences of a variety that makes fiction riveting. An orphan, he joined the ranks of the Mujahideen fighting the Soviets. He was then 15, fresh from a Madrasa in Pakitan where his relatives had fled to escape the “Soviets”.
Mullah Omar, whom he even today refers to as Amirul Momineen, or the chief of the faithful, became his mentor and friend. Obviously, he left such an impression on Mullah Omar and others in the Al Qaeda – Taleban leadership that when the Taleban came to power in Kabul in 1996, Mullah Abdus Salaam Zaeef was posted as the Taleban ambassador to Islamabad. There were similar Taleban representations in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but not Washington, leaving the US with suitable deniability of any affiliations with the “fundamentalists”. It is another matter that “fundamentalist” delegations made routine beelines to George Bush and his affiliates in Texas. UNICOL, I think, was not quite dead at that stage.
Fast forward to 9/11 and pictures of Donald Rumsfelt at Tora-Bora mountains pointing at the caves, flames leaping out: “Do you think they are cooking cookies in there?” He meant Oslama bin Laden was hatching plots in those caves. He probably was.
Zaeef dutifully addressed press conferences outside his embassy in Islamabad. Then, in December, President Musharraf made a U-turn, joined the war on terror and remained George W. Bush’s “most trusted ally” to the very end.
As a prelude to the Bush – Musharraf romance, the ISI promptly handed Mullah Zaeef to the US Forces who ferried him to Guantanamo Bay. His four year stint at this facility is now a book – in Guantanamo. He then wrote another book on his years with Taleban.
So, here I am at his two storey house protected by armed guards in an officially provided cabin outside the door.
I am escorted to the terrace, lined with flower pots, a green synthetic carpet spread wall to wall.
Mullah Zaeef is a tall, burly man with a thick, bushy beard, blending with his black turban. There are no chairs. Taleban austerity, I suppose. We recline against colourful, rectangular cushions, bloated with extra stuffing of cotton.
As an opening gambit, I settle for the topic most current: negotiations with the Taleban.
Who will you negotiate with: I ask.
“When NATO Generals and ambassadors ask me that question I say: “Americans should negotiate with the people they are fighting – Taleban”.
What about President Hamid Karzai? I continue.
“He is only an instrument of the Americans”.
But Gen. David Petraeus, the US Force Commander, Pakistan’s Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and President Karzai have been meeting to work out the modalities of negotiations.
“Negotiations are possible but only with the Americans” he persists.
Surely, Gen. Kayani and the ISI will insist on a role. After all, the ISI has invested so much in Afghanistan over the past 30 years.
“The CIA has invested; the ISI has spent a fraction of that investment”, he does not even pause to think.
Are you saying that Pakistan has no role in negotiating peace in Afghanistan?
“None whatsoever” he continues. “Afghan Taleban are fighting the Americans; Pakistan Taleban are fighting the Pakistan government.”
“Pakistan Taleban or Afghan Taleban have no quarrel with the Pakistan nation, the people. The fight is with their Intelligence agency, with their government.”
I come to the point directly. The Pakistan Army has been talking to the Haqqani group which is extending its influence in Afghanistan.
“There are no talks with Haqqani”. Who knows, Gen. Petraeus may be right that there is no monolithic Taleban group, just a syndicate of groups. For Mullah Zaeef, the ultimate Taleban leader is Mullah Omar. Can I meet Mullah Omar? I ask him.
“Extremely dangerous these days” he says.
Throughout the 90 minute conversation, what comes across is his total distrust of Pakistan. If you wish to see this cool man lose his composure, draw him out on Pakistan’s control on Taleban in Afghanistan.
“They cannot be trusted. It was from their air bases, that the Americans first struck Afghanistan. They facilitated the US troop movements. And do you think they will let the US leave? Do you know that Balochistan is the critical supply route for US Afghan operations? Will Pakistan ever give up this source of income and, above all, control on the Americans”.
By now he is virtually frothing in the mouth.
“Even Israelis are not as harsh with their prisoners as the Pakistanis are. The torture our people have suffered….”. Remarkably, he said all this on TV.
“First they entertained me as Ambassador, then handed me over to the Americans like an ordinary criminal. Why?” he explodes. The next government in Afghanistan will be neutral between Indian and Pakistan.
For perspective, let me explain where Mullah Zaeef stands in the Taleban hierarchy.w
Quite as important as Mullah Zaeef were Taleban Foreign Minister and Representative to the UN, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil and Abdel Hakim Mujahid respectively.
After the September elections, we may hear these names as possible interlocutors, if there are to be negotiations, that is.
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