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Disenchanted Afghans plot to undermine the Taliban
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff, 10/7/2001
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Hundreds of disenchanted civil servants in Afghanistan - from police and intelligence agents to at least one provincial governor - are quietly scheming to undermine the hard-line Taliban regime, and discord in the government reaches as high as the Cabinet, according to a number of disaffected Taliban officials interviewed by the Globe.
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States and the Taliban leadership's refusal to extradite prime suspect Osama bin Laden, more than 100 government officials who belong to a single opposition network have secretly crossed the border into Pakistan to plot strategy before going home to try to undermine the government, those interviewed said.
The disaffected Taliban workers paint a picture of a regime that is brutal and uncompromising toward its people. They describe a government that has destroyed the country's economy and infrastructure. And they talked of leaders who have become so corrupt that one took a bribe to have the wrong man executed.
The officials say that there is unrest among the people and that Taliban soldiers are deserting, both because they fear a US attack and because they have not been paid.
The Islamic Council for the Solidarity of Nationality in Afghanistan, the little-known Afghan prodemocracy group with whom these workers are associated, says there are as many as 2,000 disgruntled employees of the Taliban government, including key officials in 16 of the 31 provincial governments and a deputy interior minister. They were in secret contact with the group, leaders say, long before the current crisis began.
A review of seven of the group's membership ledgers - complete with ID photographs, titles, addresses, and signatures - showed several thousand Afghan members, though it is impossible to verify what they do.
Those who have come to Pakistan in recent days have not officially defected. Leaving their families behind and making the excuse of important business, they crossed unguarded frontiers into Pakistan. They said they plan to return to their jobs, some as early as today.
For five years, these men have worked in the Taliban's most sensitive and brutal jobs, all the time growing more resentful of an oppressive regime, they said. Powerless to unseat it, they have conformed to and even enforced the tyranny of the regime. Now with growing discontent among the people and a global coalition building against the Taliban, these men apparently smell weakness in the leadership and a chance to topple the government.
''There is a rift within the Taliban ranks, and that's why we're here, to discuss strategy and plot our next step,'' said Maulvi Yousaf, a high-ranking official of Afghanistan's Justice Department who works as a provincial executioner with the vice and virtue squad.
''On the surface there is no split, but even within the Cabinet, some people are fed up,'' he said.
Like the other would-be defectors, Yousaf spoke on condition that only his last name, which is a common one, be used. (Maulvi is a title for a Muslim cleric used by many Taliban officials.) Fearful of being exposed and put to death for treason upon their return, the men, who had never spoken with a reporter before, said they agreed to talk despite the risk to their lives, because they are furious at their leaders for risking war to protect an accused terrorist. The men insisted that details of their work units be omitted and agreed to be photographed only if their faces were covered.
Just three days ago, they explained, five men in two southeastern Afghan provinces were executed, accused of spying for the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who formed an alliance with Taliban opponents last week.
''Only the top few Taliban leaders are supporting Osama bin Laden, not the masses who are condemning the attack in the US and saying that Islam does not allow the killing of innocent people,'' said Yousaf, 47, an animated, articulate man with a master's degree from a Pakistani university. ''People are sick of the Taliban's policies. And, with this Osama issue, people are taking the opportunity to rise up now.''
But these fifth columnists vehemently oppose an American military campaign to oust the Taliban and say they will reluctantly defend the regime they hate if their country is attacked. Afghan opponents of the Taliban, not a US military operation, should remove their own government, they said.
''If the US attacks, we're afraid they would impose their own government,'' said Yousaf, a former mujahideen member who commanded 500 fighters in the war against Soviet occupation. ''But I am confident that a country that stands for human rights would not violate human rights'' by attacking Afghanistan, he added.
Yousaf and three other highly-placed officials interviewed - a police chief, an intelligence chief, and a judge - said they were never true-believing Taliban. A generation older than the young Taliban rebels, these men were mujahideen officers who were rewarded with civil service jobs after the Russians withdrew in 1989, and they stayed on in their posts after the young Taliban took over in 1996.
Asked why they cooperated with a regime they say they have long despised, Yousaf quoted a proverb popular among the Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group of Afghanistan: If you can't defeat your enemy by force, make friends with him and attack him later.
The men admit that a great many Afghans had hopes for the idealistic Taliban when they first dislodged the corrupt and fractious mujahideen government, promising to bring peace, stability, and Islamic values to a war-ravaged land.
''It was such a bad situation of lawlessness that no matter who took over, people would have welcomed them,'' Yousaf said. ''People supported the Taliban because they said they would work for Islam. But what they are doing - harboring an accused person - is not permitted by Islam.''
Wearing the weighty turbans and generous beards mandated by the Taliban, the four men fingered their prayer beads, describing their early disenchantment when the young zealots suddenly banned all education outside Islamic seminaries, confined women to the home, and banned nonreligious music, television, and even kite-flying, imposing a puritanical lifestyle on all.
Yousaf was working for his nation's Justice Department when the Taliban took over in 1996. He was made a senior official for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police. He was instructed to have men whipped for trimming their beards, listening to music, watching videotapes or television, or looking at women. He ordered women beaten for exposing even half an inch of ankle.
Yousaf said he has never been ordered to carry out an execution, but the men have witnessed public executions and have smuggled out to Pakistan clandestine videotapes as a testament to the brutality of their regime. One recent tape shows the slow and gruesome decapitation of an accused murderer. Another records the public hanging of Taliban soldiers who deserted the front lines in return for bribes from anti-Taliban rebels.
Maulvi Iqbal, 48, who commands 500 police officers in a key Afghan city, recounted an incident in which a corrupt Taliban judge accepted a bribe from the family of a convicted murderer to execute one of their enemies in his place. When the corpse was removed from its shroud, relatives of the murder victim complained, but there was nothing they could do. The judge, Iqbal said, is still in office, too powerful for anyone to challenge.
Sitting on a sofa below a tapesty of the mosque at Mecca, Iqbal and Maulvi Qayamuddin, 50, a senior judge, smoked cigarettes during an interview, in violation of Taliban edicts. They admitted the hypocrisy of enforcing laws they do not obey in private.
Asked how they can arrest and impose punishments on neighbors in good conscience on behalf of a regime they oppose, the men said they try to be fair and maintain balance in their judgments.
''I have stayed with the Taliban under compulsion,'' insisted Maulvi Sattar, 50, an area intelligence chief in an important city. ''I have had to support them to protect my family.''
Qayamuddin said: ''Yes, we are in the Taliban regime, but in our hearts and minds, we are not with them.''
Members of the network take an oath of allegiance to never reveal the workings of the group. Ten of their members have been arrested on suspicion of working for the network, and one member spent a year and a half in prison, tortured repeatedly until the organization could buy his freedom from a corrupt judge.
The men admit that their numbers are relatively small - 2,000 among an estimated 45,000 civil servants - but they say they believe there are many like them who are disgusted with the Taliban.
They also contend that they could be more effective in opposing the Taliban than the Northern Alliance rebels, who control about 10 percent of the country. The disaffected officials say they have an advantage because they are already inside the regime and because they are from the majority Pashtun ethnic group. The Alliance comprises mainly Tajiks and Uzbeks.
It is impossible to determine whether these men have harbored anti-Taliban feelings for years or whether some are recent turncoats who sensed a shift in political winds and wanted to save their skins. Unlike other dissidents who have had years to court Western diplomats and media, these men who remained in Afghanistan are not publicity-savvy, nor they sophisticated enough to know how to reach out for help to foreign embassies.
A diplomat and some Afghan journalists downplayed the importance of the underground group with which the men are associated, the Islamic Council, and its soft-spoken president, Mohammad Yasin Kasib.
But others take the group seriously enough to feel threatened by it. Two members of the council's staff have been killed here in drive-by shootings in the last few years.
Kasib, who has a master's degree in economics and says he has been educating his members about democracy and human rights, said his group is funded by member donations and by his family's antiques and jewelry business. He admitted that his group has not managed to spark a widespread revolt among the civil service, but he said he believes that the anti-Taliban bloc in Afghanistan is the majority. The problem, he said, is that it is not united.
Sattar said that although many Afghans fled urban areas in the first weeks after the suicide-hijackings in the United States, many have since returned.
''People are waiting for a new government,'' Sattar said, leaning forward in his seat. ''If the Afghans are backed and helped by someone, they would be able to topple the Taliban. I'm suggesting economic and political assistance from the US to those who are anti-Taliban.''
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/7/2001.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), October 08, 2001
This sounds like a bunch of guys trying to save their own butts - the first rats to leave a sinking ship.
-- Loner (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 08, 2001.