Karzai's Plan to Utilize Taliban Draws Ire; Military Calls Policy 'Half-Baked'

Article excerpt

Byline: John Jennings, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

GHAZNI, Afghanistan - Outside the commander's guest room, soldiers crouched around a paperback-sized shortwave radio in the twilight, listening to a Western news service's Persian-language broadcast.

The report described a campaign trip by President Hamid Karzai to his hometown, Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan.

During the late April visit, the security-conscious Mr. Karzai, who narrowly escaped assassination there in 2002, inspected highway construction projects - from a helicopter.

The president, who visits Washington this week, also made a speech in which he invited former Taliban militants to join his government, suggesting that only "about 150" top-ranking leaders closest to al Qaeda would be considered unacceptable.

He elaborated in an interview with CNN yesterday:

"With regard to the former Taliban, we want to bring back those Taliban that are not criminals. They're from Afghanistan. They should come back to this country and live a normal life. They should come back away from Pakistan. They should come and stay in Afghanistan. We want normalcy to return to Afghanistan."

In response to Mr. Karzai's latest initiative, the commander - a senior provincial security official - shook his head in disgust.

"Isn't that a half-baked policy?" he said. "We fought to drive out those ignorant [people] and their Pakistani and Arab masters. Now the government is groveling and inviting them back."

Mr. Karzai's effort to bring militants into the fold has not been limited to the Taliban. He also has courted officials of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) faction, whose 1992-95 artillery bombardments damaged much of Kabul and killed about 40,000 noncombatants.

In 2002, HIA chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar allied himself with Taliban remnants and is now thought to be hiding in remote mountains along the Pakistani border.

A delegation of midranking HIA officials, purportedly at odds with Hekmatyar, visited Kabul in mid-May at Mr. Karzai's invitation to discuss participation in the government after elections scheduled for September. But some security officials are questioning the wisdom of cooperating with the group.

"There's no way of knowing whether they have really had a change of heart," said a senior intelligence official in Kandahar.

"It's more likely Hekmatyar is simply pursuing a dual approach, fighting alongside the Taliban in case they get the military upper hand, and meanwhile infiltrating his officials into the government to keep that [political] option open."

"Like the [Irish Republican Army's] 'hard men,'" says David Isby, author of an overview of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan titled "War in a Distant Country," Hekmatyar's followers "will keep their guns, while trying to get representatives elected to parliament."

Police in the Afghan city of Kunduz said yesterday there were signs that Hekmatyar followers were involved in the killing of 11 Chinese construction workers as they slept last week.

Mr. Karzai, who enjoys the broad backing of Washington and the United Nations, faces no serious opposition in his bid for another term as president in September elections, assuming a credible vote can be held in all parts of the country.

But with little debate, he has assumed autocratic prerogatives such as appointing provincial governors from Kabul instead of allowing local elections.

His latest appointments have included a former HIA commander, Bashir Baghlani, in southwestern Farah province, and a former Taliban collaborator, Kheyal Mohammad, in southeastern Zabul.

The Ghazni official's remarks reflect alarm among Afghans who played the key role in defeating the Taliban and bringing Mr. Karzai to power - the leaders and grass-roots supporters of the Northern Alliance.

Most of its members spent more than two decades battling Soviet, Pakistani and Arab intruders and the Afghans who worked with them. …