Former Taliban leaders renounce past to stand in Afghan elections

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The Independent Online

In this extraordinary election, which sees former communists standing against the mujahedin who once fought them, the most remarkable candidates are the former Taliban. They include Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the former foreign minister who tried to warn the US about the 11 September attacks but was ignored, and who became the face of the Taliban to the world in the lead-up to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Also among them are a former Taliban intelligence chief, and the deputy head of the notorious Vice and Virtue police, who used to force women to wear the burqa and men to grow their beards long.

They are standing as candidates even as the Taliban are resurgent across the south and east of Afghanistan. The Taliban have condemned the elections, and threatened to kill any candidate taking part.

Mullah Muttawakil and the four other prominent Taliban candidates have renounced their past. None has been disqualified by the election authorities, which this week barred 21 candidates from taking part because of links to warlords.

But one, Mullah Abdul Wahid Bughrani, only renounced his Taliban links earlier this year. Until then he was a leader of the insurgency, fighting on after the fall of the Taliban, leading attacks against US and Afghan forces in his native Helmand province. He is considered almost certain to win a seat in parliament.

During the years of Taliban rule, the ultra-moderate Mullah Muttawakil was the public face of the movement. He is believed to have been involved in negotiations with the Pakistan government to hand over Osama bin Laden, and spare Afghanistan the US-led invasion - but he was overruled by the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

In 2002, it was revealed he had tried to warn the US that al-Qa'ida was planning a major attack on American soil, but was ignored.

He is standing as a candidate in his native Kandahar, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban, but there are doubts over whether he will do well because he does not have strong tribal support.

A famous former Taliban military commander who is standing is Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi, who got his name because he shot down a Russian helicopter with a hand-held rocket-launcher from the saddle of a motorbike during the jihad against the Soviet occupation.

There have been rumours he might be banned by the electoral authorities because of his past. In the 1990s he kidnapped a senior Pakistani official and Chinese engineers from across the border in Pakistan in revenge after Pakistani troops raided his base. He is running in Zabol province.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar was the Taliban's intelligence chief and deputy interior minister. He was the only Taliban official to stay in Kabul when the regime collapsed in 2001. "My supporters and I do not want a strict system of Islam like the Taliban," he has said. He is standing in Kandahar.

Mullah Karamuddin was deputy head of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. He is standing in Logar province.

All five are said to be on a list of those banned from travelling outside Afghanistan. And there are believed to be at least three other Taliban figures among the more than 2,700 candidates standing in the elections.