Most Afghan Taliban want peace, ex-commander says

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Most Afghan Taliban are willing to lay down their arms, a former insurgent commander said, but are afraid they will be killed for defecting because the government cannot ensure their safety.



The United States on Friday launched a new strategy in Afghanistan in response to the Taliban-led insurgency that is growing in strength and scope. More than 5,000 people, including 2,100 civilians, have been killed in the past year alone.

With violence at its highest level since the Taliban was ousted in 2001, the United States is sending some 21,000 new troops to bolster about 70,000 foreign soldiers already in Afghanistan trying to crush the insurgency.

Washington says the fight cannot be won by military means alone and its strategy review refers to the need to bring some of the insurgents in from the cold.

"Ninety-five percent of the Taliban want to reconcile with the government if they can be assured security," Mullah Abdul Salam, a former high-ranking Taliban commander and now governor of Musa Qala in southern Helmand province, told Reuters.

"But the government of Afghanistan cannot ensure their safety. If they defect to the government, the other Taliban will kill them. They are fighting for their lives," said Salam.

The government must promise to keep safe those insurgents who make peace, Salam said, but most of the militants are hedging their bets until it is strong enough to do so.

The Taliban "are just observing the security situation. At the moment the government is not much stronger than them. When it gets stronger they will come to the government side," said Salam, once a friend of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Despite being ousted following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the Taliban were able to regroup in Musa Qala and Helmand because there were relatively few international troops and little influence from the central government.

British troops entered Musa Qala in mid-2006 only to pull out later that year after daily Taliban attacks that at times reached their perimeter defences.

The Taliban seized the town again in February 2007 and set up a shadow administration. While Afghan and foreign forces held off from attacking, Musa Qala saw a measure of peace absent elsewhere in Afghanistan due to the threat of insurgent suicide attacks.

Ten months later, thousands of British and U.S. troops launched an offensive around Musa Qala, paving the way for Afghan soldiers to capture the town. It was then, in December 2007, that Salam switched sides and was appointed governor of Musa Qala.

Ever since, British and Afghan troops have slowly extended their area of influence.

Under the Taliban Salam served as provincial governor for Uruzgan in south Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold and birthplace of Mullah Omar, the Islamist movement's reclusive leader.

Salam said he used to be very close with the one-eyed Omar but the two fell out about 10 years ago. He has not had contact with Omar since, he said.

"I was really close to him. We would meet just like we are here. He was my good friend," Salam said. "Two years before the 2001 attacks ... I told Mullah Omar: 'You are forcing the people to pray and this is not a good way to treat the people. Leave them to live their lives'."

"But he didn't listen and so after that I didn't have any contact with him," Salam said.

Like many members of the Taliban, Salam is virtually illiterate having only been educated in a madrasa, or religious school, up to the age of 12. On a glass coffee table in front of him is a signature stamp, which many Taliban commanders often use because they are unable to sign their names.

But what Salam lacks in education he makes up for in character. Charismatic and larger than life, he is an excellent orator. He grins as he recounts his Taliban days and says he is not against them but does not agree with what they are doing.

He said in an interview he is in contact with the Taliban all over Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Salam says he needs more funding to allow intelligence officers to go and talk to the insurgents and wants to set up more police checkpoints to spread governance to a wider area.

"If they are not living in a secure area and they join the government, the other Taliban will kill them. I say to the Taliban: 'Stop killing the people and do business and look after your families'," Salam said.

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