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Afghan Government Tries to Recruit Moderate Members of Taleban Regime - 2003-10-24

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has embarked on a campaign to woo moderate members of the former Taleban regime into the political process. The former Taleban foreign minister of Afghanistan is reported to have joined that effort.

Senior Afghan officials say President Karzai is enlisting former Taleban officials, including the former foreign minister, to shore up political support for his government.

The aim, as one official acknowledges, is to drive a wedge between moderate Taleban leaders deemed suitable to join the political process, and hardliners who remain engaged in armed attacks on U.S and Afghan government forces.

The officials - who, citing the sensitivity of the issue, asked not to be named - say ex-Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil was released from U.S. captivity earlier this month, but remains under U.S. protection. They say Mr. Mutawakil has offered his help to the Karzai government's effort to recruit some of his former comrades. Officials say he and other ex-Taleban will soon be making statements of support for the Karzai government.

Asked about Mr. Mutawakil's status, a U.S. defense spokesman would not comment.

Mr. Mutawakil, viewed as a relative moderate, is believed to be the most senior Taleban official apprehended since the Taleban's ouster nearly two years ago. Taleban members are reported to have already denounced Mr. Mutawakil.

Barnett Rubin of New York University, a leading U.S. academic expert on Afghanistan, says former Taleban members who are not considered to have blood on their hands probably will be able to join the political process, if they renounce their past.

"The condition for joining the government is that you denounce al-Qaida, and you renounce any kind of armed struggle against the government and agree to pursue your political objectives within the legal political framework," he said. "And perhaps within that context, you may be rewarded with some positions within the government, as have other factions, which have joined the peace process."

Mr. Rubin said reaching out to moderate Taleban members is linked to Afghanistan's tangled ethnic politics.

"Obviously, one of the weaknesses of the government right now is that many people in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan feel alienated from the government and not sufficiently included," said Barnett Rubin. "And they feel that they have been singled out as enemies of the government as a group, because the Taleban came from the Pashtun areas. So, this is an attempt, really, to broaden the peace process in Afghanistan by including as many of the Taleban as possible, and through that, to broaden the government's support in the Pashtun areas."

Hamid Karzai became interim president of Afghanistan in large part with help from the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taleban group that, with U.S. backing, toppled the Taleban in 2001. The Northern Alliance is dominated by Tajiks, much to the displeasure of the Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

The government is currently engaged in drafting a new constitution for Afghanistan, which is to be ratified by a grand council in December. Elections are scheduled for June, 2004.