The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Time to tell good Taliban from bad
- Fingers that pulled triggers and fired rockets flirt with democracy

Kabul, Aug. 27: Under a colourful awning in a courtyard in Kabul’s Qarabagh locality, Haji Naqib Ahmad is speaking to a gathering of 100 tough but tired faces, the faces of men who have trekked through the night from their village Surbhi to attend this morning’s election meeting.

Ahmad, 46, cuts the air with two fingers to emphasise his agenda: yes, water for the village, health centre, school. Not many unforgettable years ago, Ahmad used the fingers to pull the trigger of a Kalashnikov. He was a mujahideen and was probably the Kabul city commander of the anti-Soviet guerrillas.

Today he is a successful entrepreneur, runs a hotel that is almost always full and has abandoned the turban and his beard for a suave look. He is also one of 500 candidates contesting for one of 33 seats in Kabul for Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban parliamentary election.

“I was a mujahideen but now I don’t want to talk about those times. They are over. Now I want to serve the people, work for Afghanistan,” Naqib says. He is seeking votes, he says, because he is a responsible leader of men, fortunate enough to be educated in a country where illiteracy is widespread.

In the battlefield of history that makes for Afghanistan, it is inevitable that its flirtation with democracy will throw up faces reputed for warfighting, not electoral, ability. Naqib is not cashing in on his reputation to win votes. But there are others who are, and they are a matter of concern for India.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hamid Karzai are closeted for a one-on-one session tomorrow, security concerns will figure largely in the discussions.

India will offer to increase assistance and training for the Afghan National Army and police. But the Afghan army is a US-led project.

India does not distinguish among the Taliban. To New Delhi, the Taliban is terrorist and fundamentalist. In Kabul and in Afghanistan, that is not the view.

President Karzai can be expected to explain the good and the bad from the Taliban to Indian leaders. The two sides will have common ground to share with concerns over cross-border militancy. In Afghanistan’s south and east, where Taliban forces are battling the US army in the mountains, they escape to Pakistan across the border.

The elections are bringing some of the “good Taliban” into political reckoning. Two of them at least are tipped to win.

One has left his family behind in Kabul. Mullah Abdul Salaam Rocketi is campaigning in his Zabul province. Rocketi was given the nickname because of his ability to shoot down Soviet aircraft with US-supplied Stinger missiles. Later, he was corps commander of Taliban forces in 2001 in Jalalabad. He was arrested by the US army but released in 2002.

In December 2003, Rocketi played a role in securing the release of two Indian workers who were kidnapped. The hostage-takers were said to be former Taliban volunteers.

In Kandahar, the Taliban’s high-profile foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil is contesting in the election. Muttawakil was foreign minister and effectively Taliban spokesman during the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft from Kathmandu to Kandahar.

Muttawakil is contesting in the election but is not even canvassing for votes. His reputation will probably ensure his victory. He is in some sort of protective custody and mostly inaccessible.

In Afghanistan’s poll where nearly 6,000 candidates are in the fray for seats in Parliament and in the provincial councils, important figures of the Taliban who are now contesting do not make up a large number. Barely 10, says an analyst with the Indian embassy.

But they will add to the diversity of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower House of Parliament, and seek to shape policies that India is wary of in its drive to cut Pakistan’s strategic space in Afghanistan.

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