- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

The United States has released from custody in Afghanistan the former Taliban foreign minister as part of a strategy to recruit elements of the former regime into the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

Afghan and Pakistani officials said the Karzai government has been negotiating with the former minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, to entice elements of the Taliban to join the government.

Mr. Karzai’s government faces widespread security problems in the Pashtun-dominated areas of the country that formed the heartland of the Taliban movement.

Mr. Muttawakil was handed over to Afghan authorities last week after more than 18 months in U.S. custody.

The move represents a sharp departure from the previous policy of the United States.

The United States helped local forces oust the Taliban from power in late 2001, after the regime refused to surrender Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar remains at large.

Despite having publicly dumped its Taliban allies after the attacks on New York and Washington, a Pakistani official said Islamabad had maintained clandestine links with some Taliban elements in order to preserve a reservoir of influence in its fractious and unstable neighbor.

“There is a concern,” he said, “that the Americans will leave one day and we’d be left facing Indian and Russian influences there with no allies in the country.”

Since the U.S.-led war toppled the Taliban, Pakistan has also reached out to discontented Pashtun tribal leaders, the official said.

U.S. officials declined to comment, but one acknowledged that, even before the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, the United States had tried to reach out to Mr. Muttawakil through the Pakistani government.


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