Leading figure talks of divisions within Taliban

Former Taliban fighters hand over their weapons to Afghan police as part of a reconciliation process in Herat, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 13, 2012.
AP Photo/Hoshang Hashimi

(AP) KABUL, Afghanistan - One of the most powerful men on the Taliban council, Agha Jan Motasim, nearly lost his life in a hail of bullets for advocating a negotiated settlement that would bring a broad-based government to his beleaguered homeland of Afghanistan.

In an exclusive and rare interview by a member of the so-called Quetta Shura, Motasim told The Associated Press Sunday that a majority of Taliban wants a peace settlement and that there are only "a few" hard-liners in the movement.

"There are two kinds of Taliban. The one type of Taliban who believes that the foreigners want to solve the problem but there is another group and they don't believe, and they are thinking that the foreigners only want to fight," he said by telephone. "I can tell you, though, that the majority of the Taliban and the Taliban leadership want a broad-based government for all Afghan people and an Islamic system like other Islamic countries."

But Motasim chastised the West, singling out the United States and Britain, for failing to bolster the moderates within the fundamentalist Islamic movement by refusing to recognize the Taliban as a political identity and backtracking on promises — all of which he said strengthens the hard-liners and weakens moderates like himself.

He lamented Sunday's assassination in Kabul of Arsala Rahmani, a member of the Afghan government-appointed peace council who was active in trying to set up formal talks with insurgents. Rahmani served as deputy minister of higher education in the former Taliban regime but later reconciled with the current Afghan government.

"He was a nationalist. We respected him," Motasim said.

Afghan peace negotiator shot dead

Motasim used his own stature to press for talks nearly three years before the United States began making overtures to the Taliban in late 2010. At the time, he was also chief of the Taliban political committee, a powerful position that he held until he was shot last August. He is still a member of the Taliban leadership council, the Quetta Shura, named after the Pakistani city of the same name.

His voice softened and he paused often as he reflected on the brutal shooting in the port city of Karachi, Pakistan, where he lived, while moving regularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan in areas that he refused to identify.

Several bullets shattered his body and he was hospitalized for many weeks. In the first days after the shooting, he wasn't expected to survive.

The AP spoke to Motasim from Turkey where he had gone for additional treatment. When speaking of his attackers, he referred to them as brothers and colleagues, saying they may have been Taliban hard-liners who opposed his moderate positions.

"My idea was I wanted a broad-based government, all political parties together and maybe some hard-liners among the Taliban in Afghanistan and in Pakistan didn't like to hear this and so they attacked me," he said. Some of the gunmen may have come from Afghanistan and some may have been from Pakistan's North Waziristan where militant groups have found sanctuary, Motasim said.

In the early minutes of the telephone conversation, Motasim was reluctant to talk politics, saying he had been told by his friends and colleagues to stay silent.

"I am not involved in any talks. I am only here for my treatment," he said.

But he gradually opened up, saying the Taliban have three main demands: They want all Afghan prisoners released from U.S.-run detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and near Bagram Air Field north of the Afghan capital; the names of all Taliban currently on the United Nations sanctions blacklist removed; and recognition of the Taliban as a political party.