May 5, 2009
Posted: 1538 GMT
He won’t look me in the eye. Won’t engage in any small talk, and looks more ill at ease than I feel.
The man in front of me is Zabiullah Mujahid, one of two spokesmen for the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He is around thirty, maybe a little younger, bearded but not heavily so. He is slight but not weak and close to my height, a little over six foot and meeting him is a big deal.
I’ve never taken meeting with Taliban officials lightly, but the stakes are getting higher these days: they kidnap reporters and worse, and just before our interview they’d announced a new offensive against US and NATO troops. Frankly just getting in this room had put my heart rate up a good few beats.
On top of that, Mujahid almost never gives TV interviews, has answers every journalist covering this conflict wants to know and is a wanted man.
I’d been waiting for him for about 15 minutes. We’d agreed to meet at this safe house on the condition I did not report its location. As we approached, I saw several men talking on mobile phones on street corners watching us very closely. It’s clear the Taliban don’t trust us not to have sold him out.
The room is small, has two doors, one to a tiny hole in the ground toilet under the stairs, the other, the only way in and out. On the floor a red carpet runs wall to wall, matching pillows ringing the room, it is the only furniture barring a computer, a small table and a chair.
When we first arrive the man minding the room has a pistol by his side. We follow his lead and sit backs to the wall propped up on the cushions and wait.
I’m expecting to hear a convoy of cars pulling up, but nothing. Silence. The street is mostly quiet. Then, a whisper: he is coming. There’s not time to wonder what’s going to happen. He steps in alone, no sound of a car.
He is nervous and seems in a hurry, tells me I only have 15 minutes. It could take me that long along to ask just half of my questions, never mind his answers.
I want the interview to last, I want to get the most out if it, I want to put him at ease so he wants to stay and talk.
My first question is simple: what’s you strategy.
He tells me the policy is clear: “we ask from the beginning and we say once again to enforce the Sharia law and Islamic government in Afghanistan, and to remove foreign forces from our country”
He tells me Presidential elections expected this year are a sham, that the Taliban are telling Afghans to stay away and he warns “we will target the Afghan parliamentary members and government officials so if there are elections yes it is clear we will target them”.
He says they’ll use suicide bombers in their attacks. I want to know how they justify tactics that kill so many civilians. I find his answer falls far short of even trying to explain, let alone apologize for the carnage they cause. He says it’s justified in Islam, it has its roots in history and Islam’s prophet Mohammed. That’s not what most Muslims I talk to say, they abhor such nihilistic thinking.
I want to ask more, to probe and push, even question his morality but to do so would at the very least drive the interview in to a cul de sac and waste valuable time when there is still so much more I want answered. He could even get up and leave and we’d be left guessing about their plans for the future and the possibilities for peace.
It’s also about now as we are sitting just a few inches apart on the floor that I realize he has gun holsters under his loose fitting waist coat. I can’t see if they are full or empty but it reinforces the notion should he choose he could pull a weapon on me and there would be little I could do. I found out later an armor plate protects his back.
A couple of sources on the Afghan conflict have been keeping me informed of back channel talks aimed at bringing peace and splitting the Taliban from al Qaeda. In September last year the first face to face meeting between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives got under way in Mecca , Saudi Arabia.
My sources had told me Mullah Omar had let it be known the Taliban recognized they will not win the war by military means alone. This as my first chance for feedback direct from the Taliban.
Mujahid affirmed that is the Taliban’s position. “We believe by both.. by negotiation and also by war.. we ask them to leave the country we are ready to talk.. so they are not ready to leave so they want to talk by the mouth of the gun we will talk by the mouth of the gun”
I’d also been told if the talks were to continue, the Taliban needed to show a commitment to break from al Qaeda, what they had done I was told was to tell their fighters to avoid civilian casualities.
When I asked Mujahid he told me that policy hadn’t changed. In their newly announced battle plans to target Afghan officials as well as US and NATO troops he told me: “we ask of the civilians don’t be close to the troops be away from them not to be targeted”
So I’m wondering if this all sounds a little rosy. Why not talk instead of fight, I get the picture when I ask what are their conditions for going in to talks. “our conditions are clear, we want to negotiate and they [the US] will not interfere in our affairs, secondly they [the US] will leave the country, third let the afghan people do what they want to do, like form the Islamic government they want to establish.”
But from what my sources tell me, talks seem stalled or at the very least to have sunk to very low level. The Taliban don’t just want US troops to leave Afghanistan, they want them out before talks can even begin. Always with negotiations I’ve learnt the key is in working out the sequencing.
Mujahid confirms my suspicions and what I hear from my sources that the talks are bogged down. He says the former Taliban officials who have been at the talks so far don’t represent Mullah Omar, when “we want to talk, it will be clear, our representatives names will be clear, we will announce [it to] the people”.
My gut, and my sources tell me he may not be telling me everything. For Mullah Omar to be in talks with President Karzai’s western backed government would be tantamount to suicide right now, not least from al Qaeda who don’t believe in any form of negotiation. It’s one of the defining factors that set the two groups apart.
I ask Mujahid about their links. “we are not under the command of al Qaeda some people are coming to fight and we say welcome” On the issue of who is in charge he is very emphatic “we are from the country [Afghanistan] we are the boss, we don’t have any link with them and they don’t have any link with us”
Interestingly, this is much different to Iraq where al Qaeda in the guise of Abu Musab al Zarqawi and others came from outside and dominated the insurgency, overrunning the inexperienced local insurgents for several years. The Taliban are smarter, and have a longer history of armed guerilla conflict. Plus they are not as ideologically close to al Qaeda as some may think.
Not long after 9-11, one senior Taliban official told me Osama Bin Laden was a pain in the back side. Hard to control, intent on doing his own thing. The only reason they didn’t turn him over was out of fearsome ethnic tribal loyalty known as Pashtunwali. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar are at opposite ends of the ultra conservative corner of Islam they occupy. Not natural bedfellows.
All this is going through my head as I’m sitting there inwardly urging him to give me more time. I want to branch off and explore these theories. Several times he says that is it. But I push on. He wants to talk about the Taliban’s response to the imminent arrival of 20,000 more US troops.
He tells me it doesn’t mater how many come, they won’t win. “If the Pentagon is thinking of changing it’s policy we too are thinking of changing the policy, if they want to send 20,000 to start a new campaign, this is a war and we will see the war and make our policy”
At one point, he laughs when I say he is up against the strongest army in the world. His point is Taliban fighters are not afraid of dying.
“If they want to send the troops and change things, we believe they can’t do anything,” he says. “Afghanistan will be the Vietnam for them. Concerning their policy it is the same bush policy there no changes in this policy.. I want to tell you clearly we will win, and they will die.”
I know he is telling me what he wants me to believe. He pushes the boundaries of credibility when he tells me the Taliban make no money from the country’s $300 million dollar illegal opium poppy crops. He points out that when the Taliban were in government, they eradicated the narcotic plants, something I saw and reported on almost a decade ago, but the facts speak differently today. Where the Taliban are strongest, the opium harvests are the heaviest.
Even before he gets up I can tell he’s been getting ready to leave for quite some time, not only asking if this is the last question but looking more and more agitated. He’d given me fifteen minutes initially but let the time run on to almost 45 minutes. But he clearly doesn’t want to take any chances that our interview has been an elaborate cover up to snatch him.
Almost as soon as he’s gone we’re encouraged to wrap it up and get out fast, too. We weren’t attacked or kidnapped on the way in, the next most likely time would be on the way out. I’d had three hours sleep the night before, and not much more the nights before that. Adrenaline kept me going, focused, sharp, alert to the dangers and the myriad questions I planned.
The further away we get, the more I can let my guard down and the more I can reflect on what was said. Was it worth it? yes. To meet and face those who’ve made themselves enemies of the country I live in, Britain and killed British men and women. It is impossible to justify for some, for me it’s impossible not to do it. Without their voice we are all fighting in the dark.
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