- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — Former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, in his first interview after three years in detention, said the Islamist regime erred by hosting Osama bin Laden but could still make a respectable showing if it ran for office.

As if to test his thesis, Mr. Mutawakil filed papers last week to run for parliament in September in his home city of Kandahar, the home base of the Taliban movement from its inception in 1994.

“I am an Afghan, and I have the right to be an independent candidate,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “The public must decide who they want as their leaders, whether it’s the Taliban or someone else.”

Mr. Mutawakil was with the Taliban from the beginning, serving first as private secretary to leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, and then as the foreign minister as the group rose to rule Afghanistan according to harsh Islamic strictures.

He fell out with Mullah Omar in the last weeks of their rule over the decision to back al Qaeda leader bin Laden and gave himself up in early 2002.

Mullah Omar disappeared as U.S. and Afghan resistance forces closed in on his Kandahar base in late 2001 and is thought to have been hiding, like bin Laden, in the rugged mountainous area on the Pakistan border.

In a rare public statement reported by a Pakistan-based news agency yesterday, Mullah Omar criticized the signing this week of a U.S.-Afghanistan “strategic partnership,” saying Afghanistan “has been sold to the Americans for an indefinite period of time.”

Mr. Mutawakil was held for two years at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, including eight months in solitary confinement, and was released a year ago only to be put under house arrest by the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai

The only major Taliban figure to have been arrested and released by American forces, he still wears the white turban and untrimmed beard of a mullah and, in the interview, was largely unapologetic about the Taliban regime, saying the current government could learn something from it.

“When you look back at our rule, there were good and bad points,” he said. “People remember them, and they like some of the things we did — security, the eradication of opium poppy and the fact that there was far less corruption in government.”

He said that if the Taliban did run in any election, “they’d certainly get votes — not a landslide, but it wouldn’t be insignificant either.”

The decision to release Mr. Mutawakil and let him run for office is seen as part of a yearlong effort at reconciliation with the Taliban, including an amnesty program designed to take the heat out of an insurgency that still ties up 18,000 troops in southern Afghanistan.

So far, no major figures and relatively few foot soldiers have taken advantage of the program, but officials hope the former foreign minister can change that.

“Mutawakil now ranks as the third most important member of the movement,” one former senior member of the Taliban said. “If the government is to bring large numbers of people over, he needs to figure centrally in the reconciliation process.”

In the interview, Mr. Mutawakil said there ?still needs to be deep, constructive talks. The Taliban are waiting to feel confident that they’ll be treated with dignity.”

Asked about bin Laden, who used Afghanistan as a base for a series of strikes on U.S. interests culminating in the September 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Mutawakil said it had been a mistake to harbor him and his followers.

“Our guests used Afghanistan for their own ends against the world,” he said. ?We suffered and so did they because of the international reaction.”

Mr. Mutawakil said rich and powerful guests had often been a problem for Afghanistan.

“There were the Soviet occupation forces, then the Arabs, and now it’s not just the Americans, it’s the international coalition and NATO, and there’s no doubt that today’s guests are very strong compared to our own army. At least, they’re strong technically.”

He would not say whether he thought Americans would be forced to leave as their predecessors had been.

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