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Ex-Taleban Form New Afghan Political Group - 2002-01-07

While losing power in Afghanistan during the war against terrorism, many Taleban leaders have managed to escape, and wasting no time, some have started a new party in Pakistan. From there they hope to return to Afghanistan and participate in the government that is eventually formed.

Please don't call them Taleban any more. They are now the Khudamul Furqan Jamiat, or Society of Servants of the Holy Koran.

Having escaped from Afghanistan, a group of Taleban leaders, including former foreign affairs minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, have formed a new organization that is in touch with the interim government in Kabul.

According to a report of the Washington-based National Defense Council Foundation, their aim is to participate in the loya jirga, or grand council, that will fashion a permanent government for Afghanistan. The report says Afghan leader Hamid Karzai needs the former Taleban leaders to build support among Pashtuns, who are under-represented in the interim government.

Foundation president Milt Copulos says that just as Pakistanis once promoted the Taleban, they are now backing its successor for a role in Afghanistan. "Pakistan will insist on a very significant role in any future government because they feel it affects their security directly," he said, "and so many of their people are Pashtuns that they have an extremely strong interest in protecting the interests of that particular tribe."

But Pakistan is not the major voice in the region, says Nasir Shansab, director of Democracy International in Washington. The fate of the Taleban lies primarily with the United States, which has defeated them in war. "Viewing the position of the United States, which is to hunt down the leadership, I'm not sure how they would like to function openly if they really want to participate in the political process," he said. "And I'm not sure how Pakistan would react if the Taleban leadership were to crop up in Pakistan and show themselves over there."

Mr. Shansab notes Pakistan has arrested former Taleban ambassador Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who is now being questioned by U.S. intelligence. He claims to be a diplomat and one of the moderate Taleban, who are said to have opposed Osama bin Laden and, among other things, the destruction of the Buddhist statues.

Mr. Copulos has his doubts about these moderates. "I do not really accept that as being valid. They will be making the claim, however, because they want somehow to separate themselves now that they saw who lost," he said. "One has to realize that loyalties are very fleeting in that part of the world."

Mr. Shansab says losers like to say they were prisoners of the situation. Foreign Minister Muttawakil, perhaps the most sophisticated and respected of the Taleban leaders, could have left Afghanistan at any time, but chose not to. Now he could face the consequences.

Or perhaps he figures that as lawlessness spreads through Afghanistan, the harsh Taleban rule will be missed.