Mysterious journey of Taliban's 'Mullah with a human face'

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The Independent Online
The Pakistani city of Islamabad is one of the dullest capital cities in Asia, but in the last two days it has been transformed into a place of exotic and impenetrable plotting.</p>Since the weekend, a parade of international intriguers â“ diplomats, military officers and spies, from America, Europe and the Middle East â“ have passed through on a variety of murky assignments. From Rome came Hedayat Amin Arsala, emissary of the former king of Afghanistan. From Washington came the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, accompanied by an entourage of specialist, spokesmen, and bodyguards. But the most important visitor of all, and the man who may hold in his hands, the key to peace in Afghanistan or ongoing war, is neither of these.</p>His face and his name are unknown outside central Asia. His origins, his age, even the spelling of his name are obscure. And the mission he undertook is so mysterious that most people in Pakistan are unaware that he was here at all. He has been described as the "Internet Mullah", or the "Rudolph Hess of the Taliban". His name is Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, and he is â“ or was â“ Afghanistan's Foreign Minister.</p>The facts, as far as they can be ascertained, are as follows: foreign officials and newspaper reports in Islamabad say Mullah Muttawakil arrived in Islamabad on Sunday and left unnoticed on Sunday. It is assumed that he travelled from the Taliban's home city of Kandahar; it is rumoured that he flew on to the Middle East, possibly to Bahrain. But what his trip tells us about the state of Afghanistan, and how it will affect the complex diplomacy unfolding in Islamabad are questions of keen debate.</p>The timing of his visit, just hours before that of General Powell, is intriguingly suggestive, especially for a man who has been described as a moderate within the Taliban leadership. The New York Times</i> reported yesterday that Mullah Muttawakil, had come to Islamabad indirectly to present a peace proposal to the US, via Pakistani diplomats.</p>But the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, has met all suggestions of a compromise with taunting defiance, and from this springs the Rudolph Hesse theory â“ that Mullah Muttawakil is acting without the approval of the central leadership, a freelance peacemaker, gambling on a place in a post-Taliban administration. But other evidence suggests a far less hopeful interpretation: that he has simply fled Afghanistan for his own survival, a symbol not of an opening up in the Taliban regime, but of its increasing harshness and intransigence.</p>Either way, interviews with those who know him from inside Afghanistan reveal him to be a fascinating figure, a Mullah with a human face in a leadership which, publicly at least, has succeeded in expunging virtually all traces of human personality. For all the harshness of the Taliban's strain of Islam, he comes across as a man with a dry sense of humour and an interest in computers and the internet, who has clashed with both the religious hardliners in the Taliban and the Arab advisers of Osama bin Laden. When General Powell spoke yesterday of incorporating former members of the Taliban into a post-Taliban regime, it is no doubt to men like Mullah Omar whom he and his advisers had in mind.</p>He was born about 34 years ago in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. His youth is nothing unusual â“ there are several Taliban ministers in their late 20s or early 30s â“ but unlike many of his fellows, who have peasant backgrounds, he grew up in the relative sophistication of Kandahar. He rose to prominence a the secretary and special adviser of the supreme leader, Mullah Omar.</p>In other words, he is an insider and there is no doubt about his unquestioning acceptance of the Taliban's hardline Islamic theology, with its draconian dress codes, harsh criminal code, and systematic oppression of women. "We want to live a life like the Prophet lived 1,400 years ago," he once told a journalist. But for a medieval fundamentalist, he has shown amazingly bold, 21st centuries tendencies.</p>The most remarkable example came this summer, when Mullah Muttawakil made a proposal that within the Taliban was almost heretical â“ that internet connections should be installed in all the Taliban ministries. In a country in which all forms of entertainment, and all human images â“ including television â“ are outlawed, this would have been a remarkable step forward.</p>But the plan backfired.</p>"In the end, they agreed to just one internet computer in Mullah Omar's special office," says an Afghan who who used to work for the Taliban administration. "That was a blow in itself. But then the religious police raided Muttawakil's house to check that he didn't have a computer connection there." It was just one of a series of conflicts within the government that suggest Muttwakil may be a man ripe for defection.</p>"He's a Taliban with a sense of humour, and a softer image," says a foreign official who met him inside Afghanistan. "It sounds strange to say it, but he'll sit and eat with you. Many of them won't. They won't even be in the same room as a foreigner because they think they're unclean."</p>In April this year, he travelled to Pakistan to meet UN secretary General, Kofi Annan.</p>Afghanistan's 22-year humanitarian crisis continued, but at the time the world was transfixed by reports that the Taliban planned to destroy the great Buddha statues at Bamyan. The Taliban foreign secretary sat through an emotional appeal by a Unicef representative to preserve the sculptures, and then turned to the UN secretary general. "I see," he said unblinkingly, "that you are more interested in inanimate objects than animate ones."</p>He also became engaged in a feud with another powerful group within Afghanistan â“ the Arab entourage of Mr bin Laden. The reason was trivial: the visit of an Arab journalist whom the Foreign Minister believed should have been organised by his department not by Mr bin Laden's people.</p>After 11 September diplomats in Islamabad heard rumours that he had been placed under house arrest. Since the bombing nothing was heard from him â“ until his sudeen and secret appearance this week.</p>Since his departure for the Middle East, nothing has been heard from him apart from a vague report on a Dubai news agency, suggesting that he was lobbying Gulf states to pressure the US to end the bombing. If that turns out to be true then a rare chink has opened up in the seamless exterior of the Taliban. But if it is not, and if Mullah Muttawakil simply disappears as mysteriously as he arrived, then a potential helper in the search for peace in Afghanistan has been lost for good. </p>