A Moderate Defies the Taliban. - 04-30-2012, 04:40 PM
Not so long ago, Agha Jan Motasim was one of the most important men in the Afghan Taliban. That was before he was sacked as head of the ruling Quetta Shura’s political committee—and before the day last August when someone pumped him full of bullets and left him for dead on a street in Karachi. No one has claimed responsibility for the broad-daylight assassination attempt, but it’s clear that hardliners in the group wanted him out of the way, and Motasim believes he knows why. He dared to suggest that the group should respect the civilian population’s humanitarian needs and should open peace talks.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast from his current home in Ankara, Motasim talked about what went wrong. “Due to a lack of understanding, some of my colleagues and friends did not agree with my concept that the Taliban should be a political movement as well,” he says. “My differences of opinion were not with the rest of the shura but with a few Taliban hardliners.” His conversation with The Daily Beast was the Western media’s first on-the-record interview with a senior Taliban minister and leader since the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Last year the Quetta Shura finally approved peace contacts with America and the West. The talks are currently suspended, but the insurgency still seems to be tearing itself apart in a fierce dispute over whether to engage in negotiations and with whom. Those who defy the Quetta Shura’s strict line are risking arrest by the council’s enforcers—or possibly even death. Only last month, the powerful southern commander Maulvi Ishmael, a former head of the shura’s Military Committee, was arrested and imprisoned by Taliban forces for allegedly sponsoring unauthorized contacts between local Taliban officers and representatives of the Kabul government’s High Peace Council.
Motasim’s Taliban credentials were no less impressive. Until the collapse of the regime, he served as Mullah Mohammad Omar’s minister of the treasury. After the movement was driven into exile, Motasim was one of the first leaders to begin organizing and raising funds for the Afghan insurgency inside Pakistan’s tribal area. As a member of the the Quetta Shura and head of the ruling council’s key political committee, he had access to the Taliban’s biggest donors in Pakistan and in the oil-rich Gulf states.
That ended in 2009, after he reportedly was tried and found guilty by a Taliban council on charges of embezzlement and opening unauthorized contacts with Western representatives. For years he had been suspected of absconding with millions of dollars from the state treasury when the regime fell, although he still insists he never stole a penny and denies that the council found him guilty of anything. He tells The Daily Beast he handed over everything to the appropriate people before fleeing Kabul.
But embezzlement wasn’t his only alleged crime. In fact, his biggest sin seems to have been his penchant for independent action outside the Taliban’s decision-making hierarchy. He particularly made enemies in the movement by urging peace talks with the Americans and the West. “Motasim was the first to realize that besides military power the Taliban must have a political and peace program,” says a high-ranking Taliban official, requesting anonymity for security reasons. “He was the first to open back channels to the West, years ago.”
Motasim’s fall from grace began in 2007 when he unilaterally opened secret peace contacts with European representatives in the Gulf. “A political settlement is a must for the Afghan conflict,” he tells The Daily Beast. “More war will only bring more mourning and danger to the people of Afghanistan,” Nor does he share the hardliners’ desire to restore Omar’s regime to full power in Afghanistan. “I think a complete Taliban regime is not the solution,” he adds. “The solution is to take on board the other groups and parties in Afghanistan”:
Even beyond those challenges, Motasim says he incurred the extremists’ wrath by urging that humanitarian relief groups be allowed to carry out development work in in Taliban-controlled areas. “We realized some NGO work could provide real assistance to the poor people of Afghanistan,” he says. “Schools are a must and shouldn’t be burned out. Common Afghans should not be stopped from an education. Those NGOs do not have a political agenda and are eager to serve the poor people of Afghanistan”.
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