Newspaper article International New York Times

A Taliban Peace Negotiator ; Desire for End to Conflict Growing in Afghanistan, Group's Ex- Minister Says

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Taliban Peace Negotiator ; Desire for End to Conflict Growing in Afghanistan, Group's Ex- Minister Says

Article excerpt

Agha Jan Motasim, a back-channel negotiator who works in secret after taking 12 bullets, insists that the Taliban are thinking about talks despite violence.

With the Taliban making territorial advances and bombing the capital every week, it may seem the least likely moment to be talking about an Afghan peace deal. But Agha Jan Motasim, a former Taliban minister, insists that now is the time.

Once the Taliban's finance minister and chief auditor, and a close associate of the Taliban's founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, Mr. Motasim has positioned himself as a back-channel negotiator between the insurgents and the Afghan government for the last eight years. He lives in hiding most of the time, shuttling through multiple cities of the Persian Gulf, Turkey and Afghanistan, holding meetings in well-guarded government guesthouses.

In a rare four-hour interview over dinner, he spoke of how the changing circumstances in Afghanistan and new pressures on the Taliban meant that demands for peace were growing inside the movement. He spoke on the condition that the interview's location not be disclosed because of security concerns and the political implications of his work.

Mr. Motasim, whose full name is Sayed Abdul Wasi Motasim, is well known in intelligence and diplomatic circles -- not least because he was featured until three years ago on the United Nations Security Council sanctions list and on the most-wanted list of the United States.

Mr. Motasim has been in the position of publicly saying the Taliban were ready to talk peace before, only to be proved wrong. That, and the Taliban's public denunciation of him several years ago, have fueled questions about how tied in to the insurgency's inner circle he remains.

But with the peace process stuck for the last two years, Mr. Motasim has picked up the baton again.

He insists that prospects for talks are growing: He says the Taliban leadership council recently met in the Pakistani border town of Quetta and agreed to proceed with peace negotiations. (Taliban figures who were reached for comment on Mr. Motasim's claim were split on whether the final verdict of the meeting was to pursue talks, with some saying the matter had not been resolved.)

Afterward, he said, several members of the Taliban leadership council asked him to restart his negotiations with the Afghan government.

Mr. Motasim is one of very few people in the world who might legitimately serve as such a go-between. But his personal experiences speak to the perils of trying to negotiate peace. He walks with a limp after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt in 2010, his family lives in exile, and he leads a secret life.

Mr. Motasim, 45, comes from the Taliban heartland of Kandahar Province and bears the title "sayed," which denotes that his family is descended from the Prophet Muhammad. A religious student, he joined the mujahedeen for a year at the end of the war against the Soviet Union and then joined the Taliban when it formed in 1994 in Kandahar.

He was close to Mullah Omar when he was in power -- eating meals with him and overseeing his security -- but said he never saw him after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. The Taliban leadership regrouped in Quetta in Pakistan, but he said they never met with Mullah Omar. Only two personal messengers ever had direct access to the leader, and even close relatives did not see him, he said.

Mr. Motasim was at the heart of the movement when it organized to fight an insurgency against the American military presence in Afghanistan and the government it supported. He said an early attempt to seek reconciliation through the governor of Kandahar was rejected, so the Taliban had no other choice but to fight.

He led the financial committee and later the political committee of the Taliban movement and traveled frequently to Saudi Arabia on fund-raising tours. …

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