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Afghanistan: Former Taliban Commander Advises U.S. Ambassador

Afghan men in the town of Musa Qala shortly after the town was retaken by coalition troops in December (AFP) The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, on January 13 met with Mullah Abdul Salaam, the former Taliban commander who recently defected to the side of the Afghan government and now heads the Kabul-backed administration in Musa Qala.

Wood traveled to Musa Qala with the goal of clearing the obstacles that prevent reconstruction aid from reaching the northeastern part of Helmand Province. His meeting with Salaam was meant to advance the ambassador's goal of aiding the region's transformation from a volatile Taliban stronghold into a center of peace, stability, and prosperity.

But during his meeting with Salaam, Wood wasn't doing all of the talking. The U.S. ambassador also got advice from Salaam about what the United States and Kabul can do to reduce popular support for the Taliban.

The former Taliban commander's advice included references to Shari'a law and its warnings about government corruption and cronyism, which, he says, prevent government aid from reaching his community.

Salaam also said as many as half of the people in his district are addicted to opium. And he said farmers in the area need help to grow alternative crops because they have become economically dependent on opium-poppy cultivation.

Strategic Site

Salaam, a powerful local commander who has brought some 300 militia fighters to the side of the Afghan government in northeastern Helmand Province, even gave the U.S. ambassador tactical advice on how to prevent the Taliban from attacking the strategic Kajaki hydroelectric dam, which is about 25 kilometers from Musa Qala.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on the sidelines of the talks, Salaam said the international community must understand that residents of Musa Qala blame British forces for allowing the Taliban to seize their town in February 2007.

He says that is because of a deal brokered by the British in 2006 under which local militia fighters were disarmed and then expected to prevent the Taliban from moving back into the area.

"For the people to realize that these [NATO] troops have come to rebuild Musa Qala, the people must be convinced that they will not be abandoned, as they were in the past when the foreigners delivered us to the terrorists -- which was not the fault of the people and the elders," Salaam said. "The international community is to be blamed for that. They disarmed the people and the elders. Then the Taliban came and took over."

Salaam also told RFE/RL that it is crucial for a new turbine to be installed at the Kajaki hydroelectric dam and for power to start being distributed to Afghan homes and businesses so that residents see improvements in their living conditions.

"The people will take advantage of the new situation if they are reassured that Musa Qala will not be abandoned again -- if Musa Qala is rebuilt, if Musa Qala becomes stable, and if the people of Musa Qala are taken care of," Salaam said. "The people want this area to be made into its own province. If the Kajaki Dam is rebuilt, it will be a source of livelihood for the whole of the country as well as the two districts [in Helmand Province, Musa Qala and Kajaki.] So if this work is done, the people will trust the government more. Governments earn trust as a result of their actions."

From Taliban To Government

Salaam was once the Taliban's governor in the southern Afghan province of Oruzgan -- birthplace of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

By siding with the Kabul government in December, Salaam has helped extend the central government's authority into an area previously seen as a bastion of popular support for the Taliban.

But Salaam warns that reconstruction funds from the Afghan government are not being forwarded to Musa Qala by Helmand's provincial administration in the town of Lashkar Gah. He also says his requests for the Afghan Interior Ministry to send an additional 200 police officers to Musa Qala have so far fallen on deaf ears.

As a result, he says the only reconstruction work being done in Musa Qala has been by the U.S. military's so-called provincial reconstruction team.

Salaam says that has led residents of Musa Qala and nearby Kajaki to demand that their districts break away from Helmand's provincial administration in Lashkar Gah to create a new Afghan province.

Eyes On Musa Qala

For his part, the U.S. ambassador promised Salaam that more U.S. aid would come to the people in the northeastern part of Helmand Province.

"You can count on the support of the United States," Wood said. "We are already working with others to provide furnishings for your school. We are already supporting other development projects relating to agriculture, relating to health, relating to the paving of roads, and other things."

"We believe it is very important that the community of Musa Qala come together to decide what your priorities are so that we can help you fulfill them," Wood continued. "It is the people of Musa Qala who know what Musa Qala wants and needs. And we want to hear their voices."

But Wood told Salaam that residents of Musa Qala also need to help Afghan and NATO-led security forces so that Taliban attacks are unable to thwart reconstruction efforts.

"The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala. And whatever happens here will be known. And we want the eyes of the world and the eyes of Afghanistan to see success, to see peace, to see reconciliation, to see health, to see education, and to see good governance," Wood said. "We want to see the voice of the people of Musa Qala represented in the government of Lashkar Gah and the government of Kabul through [Salaam's] voice. And we want to see the government of Kabul and the government of Lashkar Gah represented in Musa Qala through [Salaam's] voice."

Salaam said there are two types of Taliban in Helmand: Afghan nationals who he described as as "true Afghan mullahs," and foreign Taliban. He told Wood it is possible to separate Afghan and foreign Taliban fighters because Afghans are unwilling to destroy their own country.

Salaam said he expects his appointment as district chief in Musa Qala to foster reconciliation between the Kabul government and other moderate Taliban members. And he said some moderate Afghan Taliban already are talking to him about the possibility of backing Karzai's government -- but he added that it would be premature to announce any fresh wave of Taliban defections.

Wood told Salaam that the U.S. government would welcome all Taliban who respect the Afghan Constitution, lay down their weapons, and decide to join in a peaceful reconciliation process.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Zubair Zhman contributed to this story from Musa Qala.)

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