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Has Mullah Omar Been Spotted In Kabul?

Huma Sultani wouldn't seem like an obvious intermediary with the spiritual leader of the Taliban.

Huma Sultani wouldn't seem like an obvious intermediary with the spiritual leader of the Taliban.

What if Afghanistan's most-wanted leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, were hiding right under President Hamid Karzai's nose in Kabul?

It might seem like a preposterous suggestion, except for two things. One is this year's bizarre precedent of finding Osama bin Laden hiding out in Pakistan's "West Point" city of Abbottabad. The other is the recent announcement by a member of Afghanistan's parliament that the one-eyed Mullah Omar was, in fact, a temporary guest in her Kabul home.

Homa Sultani, who is a legislator from Ghazni Province, announced to her fellow lawmakers earlier this month that Mullah Omar was staying at her place along with 12 other members of his entourage. They had come, she said, to talk with Karzai and she was trying to make the meeting happen.

But, Sultani said, Karzai was not interested. And from there she went on to attack Karzai as being not genuinely interested in making peace, despite setting up his high-profile Peace Commission to explore ways to reintegrate the Taliban into Afghan society.

Sultani's claims of hosting Mullah Omar in the capital and her broadside against Karzai were extraordinary for several reasons. First, she is not known as a fierce critic of the president. And, second, she is not a known sympathizer of the Taliban.

Instead, until this month, she was a little-known member of parliament who hails from Ghazni's Shi'ite Muslim Hazara community -- a group that the Taliban in the past has fiercely persecuted. And as a female parliament member, she personally would appear to oppose everything Taliban rule brought to Afghanistan, including a ban on women going to school, much less holding office. Not to mention that she has previously worked for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Why Sultani?

So it should be no surprise that Sultani's announcement of hosting Mullah Omar caused a sensation in the Afghan press -- though it was little noticed by international media. She was interviewed by newspapers and appeared on television talk shows and the reception was not always kind.

In one typical reaction, the deputy head of the Karzai-appointed Peace Commission accused Sultani of bluffing. Mawlawi Ataullah Ludin told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan Sultani had to be doing so because the Taliban's spiritual head would never talk to someone like her.

Still, Sultani stuck to her story and even raised the ante. She told RFE/RL: "I have one son. If I am lying, let the government hang us both as an example to others not to stretch the truth."

Strong words. But stronger still when matched by the difficulty of finding any personal gain in Sultani's announcement of hosting an internationally reviled figure.

So, what to make of the whole affair? It is either political theater not worth watching or a rare view into the hidden world of Afghanistan's complex efforts to find a negotiated end to its conflict.

"I have not turned into one of the Taliban," Sultani told RFE/RL. Instead, "they have basically accepted our demands" for peace, including observing democratic values and human rights in the future.

Is that possible? For Mullah Omar to accept anything like an international definition of human rights, including women's rights, would be an astonishing development indeed. But that only adds to the mystery of what has become the "Sultani affair" in Kabul or -- for that matter -- of the whole question of negotiating with the Taliban at all.

-- Mustafa Sarwar