Former Members of the Taliban Turn Their Backs on Insurgency

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 14, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A cartoon flickered on a television set in Abdul Samad Khaksar's living room as he took a drag from a cigarette and considered the merits of Afghanistan's former Taliban government.

"The Taliban are like a medicine for Afghanistan that has expired," said Khaksar, 42, a white-bearded religious scholar who is running in parliamentary elections scheduled for September. "They want people to live like in the time of our Holy Prophet. I am in favor of how he lived, too. But it's impossible to bring that time back. The people of Afghanistan need something new."

It was a surprising assessment from a man who was once a senior official of the Taliban government -- an Islamic group so extreme that it outlawed television. Hundreds of Taliban fighters continue to wage a guerrilla war against the Afghan government nearly four years after the group was ousted.

But Khaksar's candidacy also points to a central paradox of the Taliban insurgency. While the extremist militia is mounting an unprecedented wave of attacks, apparently aimed at sabotaging the elections, several hundred former Taliban members have returned from exile in Pakistan to join a government reconciliation program. A handful of well-known Taliban figures have even decided to run for parliament.

Over the last several months, small groups of Taliban fighters have repeatedly battled U.S. and Afghan forces for hours at a time, and they have staged dozens of attacks and bombings that have killed hundreds of civilians -- aid workers, religious leaders, election workers -- as well as Afghan and U.S. troops.

Yet the militia's resurgence comes as a new government reconciliation program, open to all but senior Taliban militants linked to terrorism or war crimes, is yielding unprecedented results. Several hundred former Taliban members have recently streamed back into Afghanistan from Pakistan after formally renouncing violence, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

"The response has been tremendous," said a senior Afghan official who oversees the program. "So many of them are fed up and want to come home, as long as they are promised they will be treated well."

Some of those candidates were considered moderates when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan -- including Khaksar, who was deputy minister of interior, and Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, a high-profile foreign minister who spent three years in U.S. custody and then house arrest in Afghanistan after turning himself in.

There are also several Taliban military commanders in the race, including Rais Baghrani of southern Helmand province and Abdul Salaam Rocketi, named for his skill at aiming rockets.

Although none of the candidates and few of the returnees appears to have been active in the recent insurgency, analysts said that their reentry into Afghan society has had an important psychological impact.

"By coming in as Taliban, they've taken a stance in favor of the peace process, which basically cuts off the moral authority of those in armed resistance," said a Western diplomat.

Just as significant, none of the ex-Taliban candidates appears to be advocating the fundamentalist Islamic policies of Taliban rule, which prohibited women from showing their faces in public, closed girls' schools and required men to grow long beards.

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