KABUL, Afghanistan, Feb. 15 -- Four senior Taliban leaders have accepted a reconciliation offer from the Afghan government, a Western official with direct knowledge of the deal said Tuesday.
Under the agreement, which the official said would likely be announced within days, the men recognized the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's government in exchange for assurances that they would not face arrest by Afghan or foreign security forces.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has said former followers of the Taliban are eligible for reconciliation, with some exceptions.
(Ahmad Masood -- Reuters)
The official identified the four as Abdul Hakim Mujahid, formerly the Taliban's envoy to the United Nations; Arsullah Rahmani, the former deputy minister of higher education and a former commander in southeastern Paktika province; Rahmatullah Wahidyar, the former deputy minister of refugees and returnees; and Fawzi, the former charge d'affaires at the Afghan Embassy in Saudi Arabia and then first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan. Like many Afghans, Fawzi uses only one name.
All four had fled to neighboring Pakistan after U.S. forces and Afghan militias drove the Taliban from power in late 2001, the official said.
Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, refused to name the former Taliban officials involved but confirmed that they recently accepted the president's offer and are in Kabul.
Twenty-two low-level Taliban members in several provinces have agreed to lay down their arms as part of a similar reconciliation arrangement, said the Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Afghan government has the lead role in the process.
Karzai and U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that former followers of the Taliban are eligible for such arrangements, with the exception of an estimated 100 to 150 known to have associated with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or to have committed atrocities during the fundamentalist Islamic militia's brutal rule over much of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
"By offering protection to some of these forces who were staying outside [Afghanistan] simply because they were fearing to return, we are paving the way for strengthened peace, stability and reconstruction," Ludin said.
However, a second Western official noted that the four senior Taliban leaders who agreed to the deal were moderates who after the Taliban's defeat formed a new political party called Servants of God and had been petitioning the government for recognition ever since.
"This is not a case of 'Oh, hallelujah, a Taliban who has reformed,' " said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating his Afghan counterparts. "These are civilian politicians who, for the last three years, have been hoping someone would agree that it would be useful for people who have been trusted by the Taliban to woo other Taliban to support the peace process."
The four, all ethnic Pashtuns from Paktika province, could prove useful in that regard, the official added. Despite the Taliban's failure to make good on threats to disrupt the October election, members have launched periodic attacks on foreign and Afghan forces across the country, including along Paktika's border with Pakistan.
Rahmani, in particular, seems determined to persuade his compatriots in the province to give up such tactics, according to the official. "If he had his way, he would be more or less running around Paktika on foot to tell everyone to get down off the mountains and join the post-war process," the official said. "He's waiting to be unleashed."
Now in his sixties, Rahmani was older than most Taliban officials when he joined the movement and already had a national profile as deputy prime minister under the fractious government that preceded the Taliban. "He's a fairly senior religious figure who is highly thought of in Paktika, so he can pull some weight," the official said.
But Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, argued that the government should have waited until a national accountability system was in place before offering such deals. "If someone is a key figure within the Taliban structure, his relation to the decision-making needs to be investigated to determine how bad he might have been," Nadery said.
Last month, the commission and the U.N. human rights office presented Karzai with a national survey indicating that more than 75 percent of Afghans want those who committed war crimes during more than two decades of conflict brought to justice. In response, Karzai appointed Nadery to a group charged with drafting an accountability process.
Nadery said he worried that Taliban fighters and leaders brought in through the reconciliation process would claim immunity from future prosecution.
Ludin, Karzai's spokesman, conceded that authorities did not know the backgrounds of many of the low-level Taliban fighters who had taken advantage of the government's offer. But if major criminals managed to slip in, they could still be held accountable down the line, Ludin said.
"What we are offering is not a blanket amnesty to people for crimes they have committed," he said. "What we are offering is protection from being arbitrarily taken prisoner by the Afghan government or other forces for people who don't have anything to fear in principle."
Wahid Mojdah, an Afghan court official who worked in the Taliban's Foreign Ministry and knew the four men, said none played a role in the militia's most egregious crimes, which included massacring members of the Hazara ethnic group and publicly stoning women accused of adultery. Nor do the men appear to have had a hand in outlawing a wide range of practices deemed un-Islamic, such as flying kites and listening to music.
"They are not extremist men," Mojdah said.