Ex-Taliban officials change headdress, resume duties
By Ilene R. Prusher
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Until the fall of Kabul two months ago, Mullah Al-Haj Khaksar was the Taliban's deputy minister of the interior. He oversaw the police forces, and his job was "to establish peace and security in Kabul as well as other provinces."
Today, he still sits in an office here with windows coated in a whitewash film, so that no one can see inside. He's waiting for a job offer.
"They haven't given me a chance to take a position in the interim government so far, but if they want me to, or if the tribal elders from my province suggest I represent them, then I will participate," says Mullah Khaksar, a rotund man whose desk bears a official-looking nameplate and a framed picture of Ahmad Shah Massood, the assassinated leader of the Northern Alliance, the main group which fought to overthrow the Taliban.
Most senior officials from the former Taliban regime are still on the run or in hiding. Some, cornered in their redoubts, have recently cut surrender deals with provincial warlords in southern Afghanistan, and been set free, possibly opening the way for escape into Pakistan and Iran.
Still others are, like Mullah Khaksar, trying to remake their image to fit in with Kabul's new zeitgeist. They say they were trying to fight the system from within, that they had no choice but to work for the previous government - and that they never really liked the Taliban anyway.
Besides Khaksar, there are dozens of mid-level officials in the Taliban regime who are now getting on with their lives virtually unhindered and unchanged - save a switch of headdress and a slight trim of the beard. From mullahs who gave fiery anti-Western sermons in mosques to bureaucrats who ran government ministries, many former Taliban officials are sitting in the same government positions they held when Mullah Mohammad Omar was still in charge.
Many Afghans don't see any contradiction in this recycling of players from one regime to the next, regardless of how radically different each might be. On the contrary, many here defend this as a natural chain of events - one that mirrors the phenomenon in which fighters here have often changed sides in the war when they come to a realization that they are on the losing end of the battle. These remarkable reincarnations, writ large, help tell part of the story of why it is becoming so difficult to track down the senior Taliban and Al Qaeda members.
Take Said Marajuddin Nazari, who was in charge of oil imports for the Taliban's department of transportation. His was an important job in a region where oil is a key commodity - and where a supply of fuel was crucial to feeding the Taliban's war machine, which eventually gained control of 90 percent of Afghanistan.
Today, Mr. Nazari has traded in his large turban for a pokhol, the wool hat with rolled-up sides emblematic of the Northern Alliance. Though his neighbors say that he once seemed perfectly content to walk the walk and talk the talk of the Taliban, Nazari says he grew disappointed in the regime because they refused to hire qualified people and kept his daughters home from school.
"I had to work to support my family," says Nazari, a father of seven girls.
"No one wants to say now that they liked the Taliban or wanted to work with them," he says. But despite that, he says that most people accept that he held an important job in their regime - and that he has kept the same job in the interim government. He also worked for the government run by the mujahideen, who repelled the Soviet invasion.
"Maybe five percent of people here would say accusingly, 'You were working for the Taliban,' as though there were something wrong with it," he says.
"The Taliban did bring security to Afghanistan," he says. "There was no robbery on the roads. But we lost other things like education, and no one could speak freely on the street."
Mullah Khaksar, the former deputy interior minister says he, for one, clashed on many occasions with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader and with Osama bin Laden. He says he tried to get Omar to bring various regional powerbrokers into the government, rather than limit it to ethnic Pashtuns like them, and to have regional councils.
"He got angry at me and told me that I'm against his policy and against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," recalls Khaksar.
Khaksar says he has no reason to think he could face problems from the new government, which has pledged to bring senior Taliban leaders to justice.
Those who stayed here in Kabul, he says, showed which side they were on - now.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan capital would not seem to be the logical junket stop for members of Congress preparing ''How I Spent My Winter Vacation'' reports for their colleagues.
It's a cold and bleak city with almost no amenities and very limited shopping. And Kabul remains rather full of men armed with weapons ranging from AK-47s to shoulder-launched rockets.
Even so, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became the latest congressional visitor when he spent the past four days in Kabul. Two more delegations are headed here this week. One is led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., leads a contingent from the House Appropriations Committee.
Last week, Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., headed a delegation, which made a brief stop at a military base north of here for consultations with Afghan officials. And Secretary of State Colin Powell will be in the Afghan capital this week.
The parade of U.S. politicians and officials through Afghanistan comes as Afghan leaders argue for sustained U.S. and United Nations involvement in the reconstruction of the country's economy and government. They point to what happened to Afghanistan after U.S.-backed fighters ousted Soviet troops and the puppet government in 1989. Civil war destroyed much of the country and opened the way for the hard-line Taliban militia to take control in 1996.
Few U.S. politicians want to be accused of losing Afghanistan this time. ''We're not going to repeat the mistake that was made when the Soviets were pushed out of here and the rest of the world essentially walked away,'' Lieberman said last week.
The visits essentially are high- profile sniff tests to gauge what is going on and who can be trusted.
Kolbe, who is to arrive Wednesday or Thursday, is leading the first official House delegation to the country. Its stated mission: to see what role the United States should play in Afghanistan's reconstruction. ''We'll also try to assess the needs of some of the requests,'' Kolbe said from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the group's first stop. ''We . . . want to make sure how the money is being spent.''
Kolbe chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, a position which has more than enough clout to get the U.S. Embassy personnel anxious about the visit. Joining him are Reps. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.; John Sununu, R-N.H.; Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.; Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. The trip, which includes Pakistan and Tajikistan, ends in Rome, where they meet with deposed Afghan king Mohammad Zahir Shah.
The Kolbe delegation was beaten to Kabul last week by Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., Tony Hall, D-Ohio, and Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., who made a two-day private visit.
The trio stayed in private lodgings in the city and examined humanitarian conditions and logistics. Because they were not an official U.S. mission, they were denied permission to visit U.S. troops.
The Lieberman-McCain delegation of nine U.S. senators met with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, Defense Minister Muhammad Qassem Fahim, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Women's Affairs Minister Sima Samar at the Bagram air base north of Kabul.
''There is no substitute for coming and being on the ground,'' said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of that delegation.
Hagel said he and the others left Afghanistan convinced it is in the interest of the United States to remain involved in the region. ''We have to keep in mind that we no longer can look at American foreign policy towards one nation, but rather on a regional basis,'' Hagel said. ''I understand it is a long challenge and we cannot take it lightly, we cannot walk away.''
The Lieberman-McCain delegation included Sens. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.; Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Jean Carnahan, D-Mo.; John Edwards, D-N.C., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
They discussed the continued threat posed by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, reconstruction of the country's infrastructure, law-and-order issues, cooperation among Afghanistan's ethnic factions, education of women, the country's economic prospects and regional relations.
Biden, one of several Democrats mulling a presidential run in 2004, had a columnist from The New York Times in tow. His stay gave him time to meet twice with Afghanistan's interim leader as well as the ministers for health, women's affairs, education, foreign affairs and the interior. He visited a girls' school, toured the city to see its devastation and met the British commander of U.N. forces and the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan.
''It is difficult to get a real feel in four or five days, and I don't suspect I fully understand the nuances,'' Biden said. But he said he had enough time to meet representatives of all the ethnic groups and most political factions, a ''full exposure'' that helped him realize key points on security within Afghanistan and the need for a continued U.S. role in the region.
''I do not want peacekeepers, I want pursuers,'' Biden said. ''I am talking about a multilateral force that can shoot to kill, and makes it clear to everybody that without order, you are our enemy.''
Biden's arrival Thursday coincided with the first light snowfall of the year which, in the local dialect of Dari, is called ''barf.'' The unfortunate term to American ears seemed to symbolize conditions on the ground. The U.S. Embassy, where his delegation stayed, is an emblem of the hard times that have befallen the Afghan capital and the country as a whole. It's a cold, drafty and dusty place. Biden slept on a cot and learned the basics of a bucket shower -- filling a bucket with semi-hot water and dumping it over your head. A space heater was provided to ward off the cold. Temperatures have hovered near freezing, even indoors.
''It's important for American congressmen to see the reconstruction challenges facing Afghanistan and additional issues,'' John Kincannon, the U.S. Embassy spokesman, said when asked about the challenge of dealing with the onslaught of high-level visitors. ''You can say that (I) said that with a straight face.''
AFGHANISTAN: US military forces are keeping up their pressure on the remnants of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, with bombers pounding a former base yesterday. Meanwhile, the US has sought to ease concerns of human-rights groups about the treatment of prisoners.
The US and its Afghan allies are continuing to round up Osama bin Laden's followers and to strike at remnants of the militant organisation.
US planes launched fresh air raids on a suspected al-Qaeda base in eastern Afghanistan's Khost region overnight, the Afghan Islamic Press reported yesterday.
Terrorist suspects are continuing to be rounded up, with close to 400 being detained at a provisional detention centre at Kandahar airport. The first 20 to be transferred to new prison at the US Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were flown out of the base late on Thursday. Thirty new suspects arrived on Friday night, bringing the total to 391.
The US has said that the International Red Cross would be allowed to examine the treatment of the prisoners after concerns were raised about their human rights.
Human rights groups had voiced concern that the prisoners were being kept in poor conditions.
Labour MP Mr Donald Anderson, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, said the prisoners must be treated in a civilised way.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Whatever the formal category, these prisoners still have legal rights and what we've heard already suggests that human rights are indeed being put in jeopardy."
US Defence Secretary Mr Donald Rumsfeld said the men were not prisoners of war but "unlawful combatants" and therefore had no rights under the GenevaConvention.
In Afghanistan, the deployment of troops to make up an international security force was slowed by deteriorating weather conditions, including some of the heaviest rain seen in Kabul in years, which effectively closed the two airports servicing the Afghan capital yesterday.
Efforts to apprehend and question senior Taliban cadres have been frustrated in recent weeks with the release of top officials by provincial authorities in the southern province of Kandahar, the former base of the Islamic militia's leadership.
On Saturday, the interim government added its voice to US criticism of the release of eight Taliban officials, including the regime's former justice minister, Nooruddin Turabi.
After the officials turned themselves in, Kandahar authorities allowed them to leave without seeking permission from the central government, interior minister Mr Yunus Qanooni said.
"Turabi was a Taliban minister. He and other high-ranking Taliban officials do not come under the amnesty for ordinary Taliban."
As part of an attempt to replace Afghanistan's rival militias with a unified national army, the interim administration has decided to recruit more than 6,000 soldiers, Afghan television announced.
Meanwhile, six armed Arab fighters holed up for more than a month in a hospital in Afghanistan's south-eastern city of Kandahar are showing signs of weakening, a guard said yesterday.
The Arabs are presumed to be members of al-Qaeda. By Sunday they had been without food for four days and water for 10 days, said the guard, Mr Bakht Mohammad.
Despite their dire situation, the Arabs had rejected calls for them to surrender. Their nationalities and identities were not known, but most of them were believed to come from Yemen.
The reconstruction of Afghanistan and the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people are a priority, said a senior U.S. official yesterday, as he kicked off his tour of the Gulf region with a two-day visit to the UAE.
Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs, arrived on Saturday for a series of meetings with UAE officials.
Yesterday, he met General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and UAE Defence Minister.
"My goal is to listen, as well as to talk, and so I was very appreciative of the views of the UAE leaders, who helped me to understand the perspectives of our friends and our partners in this region. This will allow me to make recommendations in Washington, which will be congenial to the interests of the people of the UAE," said Bloomfield.
For his part, the U.S. official was 'happy to offer some views from Washington...'
He stressed 'the need to support Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf at this time, and the need to support the humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.'
The American government has committed over $7million this year 'just for humanitarian de-mining in Afghanistan', indicated Bloomfield, who also serves as the Special Representative of the U.S. President and Secretary of State for Mine Action.
"The Afghan people now have an opportunity to rebuild their country. One of my responsibilities is humanitarian demining... That is a very important priority."
Bloomfield is scheduled to leave Dubai today. His Gulf tour will include a total of nine Arab countries, covering the GCC, Egypt and Jordan.
The timing of this tour coincides with the dispatch of several other U.S. officials to the region, including William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.
"There are a number of U.S. officials, both civilian and military, travelling in the Middle East," he remarked. "During the Ramadan season, out of respect for our Islamic friends, we did not try to impose on them during the conflict in Afghanistan.
"Then we had the holiday season in the U.S., which again, is a time for officials to give their staff some rest. But now we have an opportunity to come out here when both sides are ready to talk and to re-engage. It's a very convenient time."
Bloomfield was asked to comment on a number of Middle East-related issues, some of which he addressed, and others he circumvented.
With regard to the Al Qaida detainees, he said: "They are being treated as fair as can be done. There are certain procedures that are not yet convenient, such as delivering mail, but the U.S. is very attentive to their condition. I believe they are more able to be conveniently questioned where they are now, than when they were in Afghanistan, which is a very difficult place to ask questions to the detainees.
"As you know there were at least two incidents where Al Qaida personnel created a riot, and created violence under detention. So it was very important to make sure that no one would be harmed by them in the process of asking them questions, and determining their potential guilt on some of these acts of terror."
Asked about a possible UAE connection to the Palestinian coast guard ship that was attacked by Israeli rockets on Saturday, he stated: "I don't know the specifics about the ship and any connection with the UAE, but I will tell you that the U.S. is very gratified by the relationship we have with the UAE and we are satisfied with the cooperation and we'll be happy to continue with the cooperation."
Bloomfield also reiterated his country's position on the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
"We are very concerned about the violence. There are too many funerals on both sides. There's much too much suffering, and innocent people on both sides are being victimised."
He added: "The U.S. position has been that whatever political arrangements are made must be agreeable to both of the parties. It cannot be imposed..."
By Craig Nelson, Herald Correspondent in Kabul
With the formation of a national army possibly months away and warlords again flexing their muscles, pressure is building to expand the multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.
A prominent United States senator has warned that without foreign troops to secure the cities and villages beyond Kabul, where a British-led peacekeeping force is now patrolling the streets, Afghanistan has little hope of peace or stability.
The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, Joseph Biden, said in Kabul that the enlarged force should include US troops and have a "robust" mandate that includes the option to shoot to kill.
"I'm not talking about peace, love and brotherhood and blue helmets," Senator Biden said, alluding to the trademark of UN peacekeeping forces. "I'm talking about pursuers ... bad-asses that can come in here and shoot to kill. Absent from that, I don't see any shot for this country. They have no army. They have police force. They have no way to keep control."
The interim government of Hamid Karzai earlier this month approved a 4500-strong International Assistance Security Force whose authority, by UN mandate, is limited to Kabul and its vicinity.
Senator Biden said that wasn't enough, adding that the government officials, politicians and civic leaders he had met agreed.
"They told me, 'We need a force to keep our neighbours from meddling,' and the unspoken feeling was a force was needed to protect us from ourselves," he said.
But the international peacekeeping force, let alone an enlarged one, is not without its opponents in Afghanistan.
A former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and the Defence Minister, Mohammed Fahim, have strongly objected to the presence of foreign peacekeepers. Yet many officials of the interim administration doubt that authorities can maintain order without outside help.
Senator Biden said the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, had told him that if residents of Kabul had their choice, they would prefer to see Northern Alliance troops leave and soldiers of the multinational peacekeeping force stay.
Senator Biden did not discuss the prospect of the UN approving such a "robust" mandate for a peacekeeping mission, and the Bush Administration was expected to take issue with the proposal in any form.
However, the task of mustering a security force in Afghanistan is urgent. "The rule of the gun is the greatest obstacle to everlasting peace and security in our country," Mr Karzai, the interim president, said in a television address last week.
Fewer than 800 of the 4500 soldiers called for by the International Assistance Security Force have arrived in Kabul.
The new head of army operations, General Abdullah Rahman, said on Sunday that only five of the army's eight brigade commanders have been named. As for disarmament, he said, "In every Afghan house, you can find a weapon."
The lack of money is also hampering the Afghan government's ability to move ahead, Senator Biden said.
The international community pledged $US20 million ($35 million) for desks, paper, computers and other items the administration needed to get it up and running. But the money has been slow to arrive and Mr Karzai complained to visitors on Sunday that he doesn't have a working telephone.
Young people flock to a grass-roots program spreading across the country.
By Lucian Kim | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
MAZAR-E SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN - There may be no telephones or newspapers here. But that hasn't stopped news from spreading about an extraordinary project run by a group of young people in this bustling city in northern Afghanistan.
Every day, new students register for classes in the unheated office of the Youth and Children Development Program, a home- grown, community-development initiative that plays a role not unlike the YMCA. English classes are the most popular offering, but the YCDP, as the program is known, also offers Farsi, religion, martial arts, and drama classes.
With the ouster of the Taliban, young people here are seizing the opportunity to pick up the pieces of a shattered civil society.
"Many people see the needs of our society, but it's the duty of enlightened people to start such a program," says Najib Paikan, president and founder of the program. "There's a very high barrier between words and actions. Even if we just repeat 'peace, peace,' peace will not come. We must do something for it."
Mr. Paikan, a medical student with a black belt in judo, founded the YCDP in 1996. But when the Taliban conquered Mazar two years later, they closed the school and sent home the women who had been working there. The organization, however, grew on an informal basis and has been replicated in dozens of projects across the country.
The program's charter, handwritten in almost perfect English, was established "by senseful youth who are enthusiastic to help people and society. This program is far away from any kind of political and military connections, and also is far away from racism, lingual, and religious fanaticism." The goal of the program is "self-sufficiency of the community."
While large amounts of foreign aid are clearly needed to help rebuild a society whose meager resources have for years been chanelled into warfare, there is already a loose network of grassroots activists who have started community projects for income generation and education.
"The indigenous process of consultation, or jirga, has a long history in Afghanistan, says Sayed Sawayz, head of the Mazar office of Habitat, a United Nations project that supports community-based development projects.
YCDP, says Mr. Sawayz, emerged from Mazar's community. "The young people took the essence of the process and developed their own procedures."
"They have a crucial role in raising awareness and can be trained for the future of development. It is a structure with lots of potential resources," he says.
Since the reopening of the YCDP school in late November - four rented rooms on the second floor of a shabby building - enrollment has increased by the day to more than 200 students of all ages and abilities. They include grade-schoolers getting a headstart on English, young women denied education by the Taliban, and doctors keen to read current medical journals. Hundreds more take part in courses in martial arts, drama, and painting, and in YCDP-sponsored soccer and volleyball matches.
For a monthly tuition fee of about $1, the language courses are a bargain even in dirt-poor Afghanistan. The teachers volunteer their time and skills, as the students' thirst for knowledge and their ability to pay are in inverse proportions.
"When I see that young people are very enthusiastic to learn but have no resources, it motivates me to help them," says Yama Behgan, an English teacher. He says he makes a living through translation and calligraphy. Mr. Behgan says that exactly because the Taliban kept people in the dark about the outside world, they are all the more eager to learn now.
As many of Mazar's public schools are poorly equipped, students attend only a few hours a day. In contrast, the classrooms at the YCDP have desks and blackboards. Also unusual in a place where schools are segregated by gender, all YCDP classes are co-ed.
Hardship has made Afghans resourceful, and intermediate- level English students, such as Wahida Paikan, pass on their knowledge by teaching beginner classes.
"We want to learn computers," says Ms. Paikan. "If there's [electrical] power, we'll bring computers to the school and start a class."
Ideas that even a few months ago would have been impossible are now becoming reality. With an enrollment increase of more than 10 students per day, YCDP organizers are already considering a move to a larger building.
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