Taliban spy chief mulls next step
Despite risk of capture, he plans to return to Jalalabad to protect family.
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Saidullah Haneefee's turban is gone. So is the Taliban regime he served as a regional head of the Taliban's much feared intelligence agency.
Now, Mr. Haneefee is faced with a dilemma. In his homeland of Afghanistan, he is a wanted man, a prominent figure in the Taliban government. But here in Pakistan, where he has spent the past three days, he can do nothing to secure the safety of his family, his two wives and four young boys.
As such, he is heading back home to Jalalabad to face almost certain capture and even death at the hands of the Northern Alliance troops who consider him a brutal war criminal.
"We don't have any safe place for my family; nobody would accept them now," he says, sitting on a simple cot in a friend's apartment in a working-class section of Islamabad. "I was a key person in the Taliban regime, as communications director and now intelligence director. Now it's a very big problem for me, and I don't know what will happen with my family, because I'm here. I have no other choice. I must go."
In the waning days of the Taliban, it had already become apparent that personal, financial, and family concerns had become the chief preoccupation for many Taliban officials. Just days after the Sept. 11 attack, for instance, the governor of Nangrahar province was arrested by a local Taliban commander for attempting to ferry his wife and children out of Afghanistan in a hired van. His offense wasn't treason; it was timing. Many Taliban leaders had sent their families to Pakistan years ago, long before the Oct. 7 air campaign began.
Now, with the Taliban regime in chaotic retreat from most of the main cities of Afghanistan, Pakistani officials are bracing for a flood of Taliban leaders like Haneefee, who belongs to the same Pashtun ethnic group that populates much of northern Pakistan.
But family and ethnic ties are sending some Taliban officials, like Haneefee, directly into harm's way, where the public mood has turned sharply against them. For these men, family and tribe and tradition are the No. 1 part of an ethnic Pashtun's life - even more important than life.
Despite the Taliban's reduced circumstances, Haneefee is still proud of what they achieved.
"The Taliban had two important missions: to bring peace and to bring fresh and 100 percent Islamic laws," he says. "We succeeded with the first one, but the people weren't ready for such hard Islamic laws. No other Afghan government has done this before. When anyone is a thief, his hand is cut off. When anyone kills someone, he is killed. If you follow Islam 100 percent, you have to work hard, and the people weren't ready."
Like many Taliban, Haneefee had mixed feelings about the increasing power of Arab nationals in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Many Taliban say that in the final days, the Arabs had as much power, if not more, than the Taliban who were their hosts.
"The biggest investor in Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden. He was bringing ammunition and weapons and everything, and that's why they were in power, because they were financially supporting the Taliban," Haneefee says, stroking his long black beard. "You can compare Mullah Omar and Osama. They were fighting shoulder to shoulder. They were equals."
He also says that intelligence agents with Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence agency (ISI) continued to support the Taliban, even after the government of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf promised to break all ties with the Taliban. "Anywhere in the world, if government policy changes, the intelligence agency policy stays the same, because they have invested too much in their people," he says.
This reporter first met Haneefee at a dingy Peshawar hotel, as part of a plan to visit Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. The trip would be very dangerous, he said, but Haneefee would take care of security and protect his charge both from other Taliban fighters and from the civilian population who were still angered by the US bombing.
Haneefee would take this reporter to military bases, civilian homes, and introduce him to top Taliban ministers. If all went well, he could also show him Stinger missiles or even take him deeper into Afghanistan to see the hideout of Osama bin Laden. There wasn't a lot that Haneefee wouldn't do, for a price.
"Even if you want to slip in some American soldiers or American spies, this is also possible," he told the translator. "But this is not for free. This is a big job, very dangerous job."
Why would he do this against the very government he was sworn to protect. "I am in a bad financial situation," he admitted. "I need money to feed my family."
While corruption is certainly not an Afghan peculiarity, Haneefee says he was scrupulously honest for most of his career in the Taliban. As head of the electrical power station near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, he helped bring electricity to rural villages for the first time. Later as intelligence director, he avoided killing those he arrested, even for serious crimes. And he says the people largely supported the Taliban, because of the near-total peace in the 90 percent of Afghanistan they controlled.
Haneefee admits he might not live to see a peaceful Afghanistan, but he offers one bit of advice to the Afghan rulers and the Afghan people: "Forget the past. Make a good government and not with hard Islamic laws. And take all people and Afghan groups into the government."
Does he think the Taliban will join the next government? "No, Taliban will not take part, even if [the Northern Alliance] invite us. We are enemies."