Taliban are regrouping, warns Foreign Minister

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The Taliban are regrouping, the foreign minister of Afghanistan has warned. Its leaders have formed two new political organisations "in another country" and are threatening to destabilise the interim government in Kabul and undermine international efforts to bring peace, Dr Abdullah Abdullah said.

"The Taliban leaders ... apparently ... are running new organisations ... here are two organisations outside Afghan-istan," he said in Kabul. "We do not have details of the organisations or their structure, but on the whole it is not acceptable that the Taliban is able to act either outside or inside Afghan-istan in any capacity."

No one can doubt that the "other country" Dr Abdullah referred to was Pakistan. Pashtuns, whether notionally Afghan or Pakistani, have never acknowledged the 1,400km (900-mile) border between the two countries. That remains the position today, which is why American special forces can fruitlessly comb the arid slopes east of Kandahar while senior Taliban leaders are sitting pretty on the Pakistani side.

Three senior Taliban leaders are living comfortably in the southern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, including Maulana Abdul Sahadi, the Taliban's deputy defence minister, and at least three others are believed to hiding in madrassas or private homes in Pakistan, including the former ministers of justice, culture, and the interior.

Yesterday in an interview with a British newspaper, Abdul Sahadi explained how their getaway had been arranged. "We shaved off our beards, changed our turbans from Taliban white to Kandahari green, got in cars and drove across the border," he said. "We're not broken, we're whole. Now we are just waiting. We are regrouping. We still have arms and many supporters inside [Afghanistan], and when the time is right, we will be back."

After the collapse of the Taliban, most of the movement's members simply changed their black turbans, swapped sides and stayed put in the cities of Afghanistan. But several senior commanders, who feared they would be arrested by Americans went on the run.

Some, such as Mullah Omar, are believed to be hiding in remote areas of Afghanistan. Most have sought refuge over the border in the Pashtun areas where the writ of Pakistani law does not run, in the North-West Frontier Province, and in Baluchistan, most of which is almost lawless. Among those on the run are Mullah Dadullah, responsible for some of the worst war crimes in Afghanistan, and Mohamed Wali, the former minister for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.

As The Independent reported in December, many former Taliban leaders are believed to have revived a defunct Afghan political organisation called Khuddamul Furqan, which may be one of the two groups Dr Abdullah was referring to. The case of the former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who was taken into custody at the weekend, reinforces the point. He is being interrogated by the Americans in Kandahar, but he was not "captured" as some reports have claimed; he merely walked in and gave himself up.

"This might have been with the aid of the Pakistani authorities," Dr Abdullah said. Mr Muttawakil's movements over the past months illustrate how Taliban leaders have been able to flit back and forth between the two countries, even when American bombs were raining on Afghanistan.

In mid-October, Mr Muttawakil materialised in Islamabad, having been spirited out of Afghanistan by Pakistani secret agents on a light aircraft. He had a 90-minute meeting with Lieutenant-General Ehsa-nul Haq, President Pervez Musharraf's hand-picked chief of ISI, the powerful military intelligence agency.

Sources said he was trying to get Pakistan to persuade America to suspend bombing for a few days, in return for which he would persuade Mullah Omar to hand Osama bin Laden to the US. The deal, of course, came to nothing.

Mr Muttawakil was sighted in Pakistan again in early December, when he gave Associated Press an interview in the southern Pakistani city of Quetta. "For a man whose world was falling apart," the reporter said, "his demeanour was calm, even relaxed ... smiling an occasional gap-tooth smile."

Mr Muttawakil, thought to be aged only 32, had various jobs in the Taliban high command, including Mullah Omar's driver, translator and food taster, before becoming foreign minister. It is questionable how moderate he is, but he remains the relatively smooth, sophisticated voice of the former regime.

Dr Abdullah described him as a "war criminal", but Pakistan is likely to urge the Americans to handle him gently, on account of whatever deal- brokering utility he may still possess. Because, as Dr Abdullah said, the Taliban are down, but not out.