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Taliban: Americans Have 'No Right to Tell Us about Democracy'
Talking to the Taliban about Life after Occupation
In the south-eastern city of Khost, the everyday business of the Taliban administration carries on across the street from the fortified, government-run city court and police station.
The head of the Haqqani network's civilian administration and his assistant hold their council in the grand mosque, which is also known as the Haqqani mosque because it was built with Taliban and Arab money.
When I met them, the two men - a frail-looking 60-year-old and his younger sidekick - gave the impression of being haggard peasants seeking work in the city rather than members of one of the organisations most feared by Britain and America.
Worshippers at the mosque greeted the Haqqani representatives with a mix of reverence and anxiety, some walking in a long circle to avoid them while others came forward and shook hands, pledging contributions for the movement. The mosque leader begged them to be his guests for the night.
"The resistance is stronger and bolder today," the old man said. "A few years ago the Taliban could move only at night.
"Now that our land has been liberated - thanks be to God - we walk around in the middle of the day and we fight in front of the people. We control our lands and our villages while [the Americans] can only come in by air."
The administrator was laden with messages to deliver. Among his many roles as a senior member of the civilian administration, the most important is as a conduit to the higher Taliban authority of Sirajuddin Haqqani and his base in the border region between Khost and Pakistan.
The old man carries edicts from the leadership in one direction and petitions and complaints in the other.
When the Taliban ruled in Kabul in the 1990s they closed schools, stopped women working and exposed themselves to ridicule by banning trivial pursuits such as kite flying.
Yes, the Taliban had made mistakes in the past, he admitted, and they were still making them. "Our men still do things that annoy the people, and that is part of my job, to convey the complaints," he said.
"But the benefits of the Taliban outweigh the harm we do to the people. In our area there were thieves and bandits. It was chaos.
"People needed someone to monitor and rule and punish. They needed us to impose order.
"The government is besieged in its fortresses and can't come to the people, and corruption is paralysing it. One of the main reasons for our popularity is the failure of this government."
In a striking parallel with what the Americans have been advocating as part of their counterinsurgency initiative, the Haqqanis have set up local shura (consultation) councils made up of village elders and clerics to run the affairs of villagers in the "liberated" areas and create local security. The old man's job is to supervise these councils.
"I am a representative of the movement and I walk among the people and everyone knows me. I move between the people and the commanders, watching the commanders' behaviour. I listen to the people and convey the picture to the supreme leaders," he said.
Had the Taliban changed? A future administration would be based on Islamic rule, which was what the Afghan people wanted, but it would be different in detail from the Taliban regime that had ruled in Kabul before. "We will not rule based on theory. The people want us to be more pragmatic."
He quoted the Muslim poet Muhammad Iqbal. "When the painter works on the same old painting again, he will make it much better.
"The Taliban that will return will not be like the old Taliban. We have learned from the old mistakes. We will accept others. We are not and cannot be all of Afghanistan, but we are an important part of it."
From Khost I travelled to nearby Ghazni province to meet a commander of the Quetta Taliban I had met two years before.
Last time I saw Mawlawa Halimi he was scared and kept a watch at the doors and window of the small hotel where we had lunch. He had just been promoted to lead a small unit and he moved around incognito, fearing government agents and police checkpoints.
In the intervening years he had become one of the most senior commanders in the province. He was a few pounds chubbier, his hair was longer and he had an air of authority. I waited for him in the bazaar. He arrived on a motorbike with an armed guard riding pillion and no one in the bazaar gave him a second glance. He drove ahead, leading us to a mud-walled compound.
As we followed him, an American patrol passed along the main road a hundred metres distant, three huge armoured trucks wrapped with mesh fences to counter RPG attacks, each with two sets of armoured wheels in front to detect and detonate improvised explosive devices and landmines. The soldiers in their gun turrets trained their weapons left and right.
"Last time we met, the atmosphere in this area was tense. The villages and markets you passed through were targeted by the Americans," Halimi said.
"They used to come here a lot and life for people was difficult. Now, with Allah's grace, this is all ours.
"The war has changed. I used to fear the government wherever I went. Now we move everywhere and carry our guns with us. Two years ago we were just trying to defend our areas. Now we control this area and we go to the main street to attack."
He highlighted another major difference with the Taliban of two years ago. Then, the foot soldiers had all been trained in the madrasas. Now they were less ideological.
"It's a mistake to call all of the fighters Taliban. The Taliban are madrasa students and I am a mullah, but most of my fighters are peasants and farmers and students who come from the government schools.
"In winter we send them to Pakistan to get some religious training, but they are not Taliban," Halimi said.
"When we sit and watch the news on TV we hear that the Taliban attacked here and there and destroyed tanks and killed soldiers. Then in the next news item you hear that the Americans are calling for negotiations and of course you understand that these two news items are related. The second news item is the result of the first, and the Americans want to negotiate because they are losing.
"Why don't they just leave?" he said. "What are they waiting for?"
The fluffed-up sofas in the Kabul living room of Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, have seated many high-ranking dignitaries in recent months as officials from the UN, the EU and Nato have come visiting.
It is a dramatic change of affairs for a man who spent three years from 2002 in prison in Guantánamo and who, until July this year, was on the UN list of known terrorists.
Zaeef is now a prolific writer and speaks five languages fluently. According to many Taliban insiders, if there are any negotiations between the Taliban and the Americans they will go through him.
"The Americans came and sat here," he said, pointing at one of the big sofas. "They said they needed to talk to the Taliban but couldn't find them. They didn't know who the Taliban were. I said go and look, they are everywhere, the Taliban have shadow governors and administrators, why don't you go and talk to them?"
The real reason the Americans didn't talk, he said, was that they had no respect for the Taliban.
"I told the Americans to respect their enemy. You can't negotiate with the Taliban from a position of strength, so why would the Taliban come and talk to you? If you want talks you have to treat the Taliban as equals."
In any negotiation, the Taliban would assert that as long as their land was under occupation they would struggle to liberate it.
They would continue to fight until the foreigners left. Their argument was with the Americans, not the Afghan government. They did not want to bring down the government, they just wanted to renew it.
"The Taliban have no problem with the Afghan government. We have no problem with Karzai or the Afghans. The problem lies with the Americans," he said.
"Why would we negotiate with Karzai if he has no say in running his government? They are under occupation and all orders come from foreigners."
The Americans, he said, had not talked to any senior Taliban to his knowledge. However, "the government and the Taliban have been talking for two years on local matters, health-related issues, prisoner exchange, education.
"This is not a negotiation, this is a way to help and benefit our Afghan people and nation. Negotiations haven't started yet."
The Americans had a right to know that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for attacks against them, he said, but that was all.
"The Americans have one right only, and that is their right to be assured that Afghanistan will not be used against them and that is something the Taliban should give.
"Apart from that they have no rights, they have no right to tell us about democracy and human rights. That's an Afghan issue and it will be decided by the Afghans.
"The Americans behave with arrogance and if they don't want to be defeated in Afghanistan they should talk.
"They don't belong here," he said. "They are foreigners, outsiders."