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Afghanistan: Former Taliban Commander Says He Sees Chances For Reconciliation

A former Taliban commander, in an interview this week with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, said he believes many former Taliban still in hiding are eager for reconciliation. Mulla Abdul Salam ("Raketti") also said he thinks Hamid Karzai, who looks set to emerge the winner of the 9 October presidential election, will be successful if he launches peace talks with renegade Taliban supporters.

Kandahar/Prague, 21 October 2004 (RFE/RL) - Mulla Raketti describes himself as a former Taliban military commander in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province. Before that, he was a mujahedin fighter against Soviet occupation forces.

He earned the nickname "Raketti" on the battlefield, because of his proficiency with shoulder-fired rockets.

Now based in the southeastern province of Zabul, Mullah Raketti was interviewed by RFE/RL's Afghan service in the southern city of Kandahar this week. He discussed his view of the country's future following the presidential election.

Mulla Raketti said he was willing to accept any national government picked by the voters and he believes many of his former Taliban colleagues feel similarly. He said the successful conduct of the presidential election in early October provides an opportunity for Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai, if he is confirmed as the new leader, to win the support of many Taliban members.

Mulla Raketti told RFE/RL that the election -- which passed relatively peacefully despite Taliban threats to disrupt the poll -- represented what he called a blow for the militia.

"In my opinion, 'yes, [it was a blow].' The Taliban had said they would destroy the election process and that they would not allow the elections to be held. They failed in what they said," Mulla Raketti said.

Nevertheless, he was reluctant to conclude that the militia itself has been defeated -- saying, "About that, I cannot say."

Mulla Raketti said Karzai must now take the initiative and send emissaries to Taliban-dominated regions to open direct talks, offering security guarantees in exchange for support. If he does this, Mulla Raketti predicted the results will be largely positive. He also disputed the contention that most of the Taliban fighters now in the mountains are hardened Al-Qaeda loyalists.

"The [Taliban members] should be assured that they will not be sent to prison, not be beaten or their homes subject to searches," Mulla Raketti said. "If they are convinced that they will not face prison, beatings, or house searches, then I think that 80 percent of these people would sit at home. The people who fled to the mountains have mostly done so for personal reasons and because they are scared [of the government], not because they are Al-Qaeda members or terrorists. The intelligence reports are wrong. Maybe 10 percent of them genuinely are Al-Qaeda or terrorists, but the others took to the hills out of fear."

Mulla Raketti was detained for six months by U.S. forces at the country's Khwaja Rawash air base following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001. In spite of his imprisonment, he had no harsh words for the Americans.

Mulla Raketti said his captors treated him "as a guest," and he could not personally corroborate reports of U.S. prisoner abuse. Mulla Raketti, who was released without charge in 2003, refused to discuss the content of his conversations with U.S. interrogators.

Mulla Raketti also addressed an appeal to the Pakistani military as well as religious leaders to stop supplying and encouraging Taliban fighters to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

"I have a complaint addressed to our brothers in Pakistan -- and I mean the Pakistani colonels and muftis who prepare our brothers, the Taliban, and give them support to make chaos in Afghanistan," he said. "Above all, I call on my Taliban brothers not to create disorder in our country with their support. We have a country like they do and the people here want to live like they do [in Pakistan]."

The Pakistani military officially denies providing support to Taliban fighters.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report, which is based on an interview conducted by Najibullah Achakzai.)