Weary Taliban coming in from the cold

Some Afghan fighters talk of being duped by bin Laden and pledge to work for his capture.

Abdul Rahman Akhund has been battling US and Afghan government troops for three long, hard years. He misses raising his kids among the quiet pomegranate orchards he used to tend at home.

With another frigid winter setting in, and a new US offensive being launched this week, this weary Taliban fighter says he's ready to come in from the cold.

"If the government will let us peacefully return to our villages and our children, we will come," he says. "We are tired living on the run in these snowy mountains."

His fellow tribesman, Sarwar Akhund, goes one step further: Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and terror kingpin Osama bin Laden, he charges, tricked followers like him into believing they were fighting a holy war against infidels, "when really they just wanted to consolidate their own seats of power." If allowed back into society, he pledges to "do whatever I can" to help kill or capture the fugitive leaders.

The two soldiers expressed views that intelligence circles across southern Afghanistan have been hearing for months. Many officials, military strategists, and diplomats here are increasingly optimistic that the Taliban are largely a spent force, made up in great parts by disillusioned, worn out foot soldiers like the Akhund tribesmen.

That's why President Hamid Karzai plans a general amnesty for Taliban rank and file as one of his first major initiatives since winning national elections in October and being inaugurated last week.

Mr. Karzai and his American backers hope the move will not only bring peace to great swaths of Afghanistan, but may even lead to the seizure of the high-value terror targets US troops are hunting across the country's south and east.

Outreach to 'moderates'

Senior Afghan officials have been quietly preparing the groundwork for months, meeting with representatives of what they consider the "moderate" Taliban, some of whom may even be allowed to run in parliamentary elections planned for the coming spring.

"People associated with the former Communist regime are back. So are former mujahideen," says Jawed Ludin, a spokesman at the presidential palace. "Therefore, nothing should really stop the Taliban rank and file from taking part in the national life of the country."

Karzai is also preparing a list of names - said to number between 150 and 200 top and mid-level Taliban leaders and hardened criminals - who will not be accepted under the general pardon.

"Those folks won't be let back in," says Col. Dave Lamm, the chief of staff for the Combined Forces Afghanistan. "We will hunt them down and bring them to justice, or we will kill them."

That group would include men like Maulvi Haider, a battle-hardened Taliban commander who agreed to a rare interview for this story along a dusty mountaintop corridor, watched from above by turbaned snipers.

"Amir Ul Momineen [Mullah Omar) is our supreme leader and we will fight for him until the last drop of our blood is shed," he growls, his eyes as hard as the rugged peaks that hide him. "Hamid Karzai is a puppet ... of the Americans and he will do whatever they say just to please them."

According to Commander Haider, the Taliban remain strong and united in their holy war against the "Jews and infidels."

"We are not ready for talks with NATO forces or the Americans," he says. "We want a pure Islamic system in Afghanistan and we will fight for it."

But to hear Mr. Rahman and Mr. Sarwar tell it, the war is less about ideology and religion than it is a battle between strongmen over control of land and trading routes.

Conscripted by the Taliban, they say they lost their orchards when warlords loyal to the Karzai government moved in. They faced going to jail when the new regime took power or staying on the run with the Taliban.

They say they are heartened by efforts to release Taliban prisoners deemed safe to society and trust that Karzai, also an ethnic Pashtun, is sincere.

But members of the mainly Tajik Northern Alliance, which Karzai roundly defeated in the elections, have voiced outrage. They argue that most moderate Taliban defected when the hard-line regime fell in late 2001, and point out that several former detainees have returned to fight with the Taliban since winning release in the amnesty's early stages.

Even some members of Karzai's government argue there should be an independent reconciliation panel, rather than the handful of mainly Pashtun security officials who currently determine who goes free. "I am not opposed to the plan in principle, but the way this is being done is worrisome," says a senior Afghan official who quietly disagrees with the current program. "Why do you think the Northern Alliance is refusing to disarm?"

Most critics see the silent hand of Pakistan, which long supported the Taliban regime and wants to see friendly faces in the new Afghan parliamentary government.

They say the fact that the Taliban pulled off no major attacks during the elections is more a sign that Pakistan "can turn the tap on and off at will," as one official says, than an indication, as suggested by amnesty supporters, that the Taliban is on its last legs.

But one Western diplomat says the amnesty program hinges largely on a promise by Pakistan to turn over hard-core Taliban fugitives if some moderates are allowed to go free, perhaps even to run for parliament. Many senior Taliban are believed to live in the western Pakistani city of Quetta and the tribal regions around it.

A risky olive branch

Whatever the outcome, many believe offering the Taliban an olive branch is a risk for Afghanistan's first-ever elected leader, one that could either inflame the tense ethnic divide between Tajiks and Pashtuns or draw thousands of low-level fighters out from the war on terror.

"If Karzai announces an amnesty, he will be very successful, and if he doesn't, we will carry on what we are doing now," says Sarwar, his black Taliban turban flapping in the wind. "Then it will be very difficult for him to rule this country."

Ms. Peters reported from Kabul. Mr. Agha reported from Kandahar Province.

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