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The Taliban's Past and Future

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Issue: 43 Section: Accounts Geography: South Asia Afghanistan Topics: taliban, civil war, Women

February 8, 2007

The Taliban's Past and Future

An interview with Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, former Taliban foreign minister

by Chris Sands

When the Taliban claimed power, they forced women to cover their entire bodies and stopped girls from going to school. They also brought a semblance of security to Afghanistan that has evaporated since the NATO invasion. Photo: Combat Camera, WO Sean Chase

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN--There was a time in recent memory when the people here had nothing but God and an AK-47 to keep them safe from harm. In the early 1990s, Afghanistan was imploding and few in the West seemed to care. Those with power abused it; those with wealth flaunted it; and everyone else lived with 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 helped bring war to America and ultimately 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.

"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."

These 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 Qur’an 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. 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."

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 CIA-sponsored jihadis.

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.

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."

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 airstrikes 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 in the government 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.

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