Afghan Taliban leader ready to end al-Qaida ties, says former trainer

Mullah Muhammad Omar 'a good man' and wants peace in Afghanistan, says Brigadier Sultan Amir Tarar

The Taliban leader in Afghanistan, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is ready to break with his al-Qaida allies in order to make peace in the country, according to the former Pakistani intelligence officer who trained him.

Brigadier Sultan Amir Tarar, a retired officer with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, said: "The moment he gets control the first target will be the al-Qaida people. He wants peace in the country, he doesn't want adventure. He has enough of that."

If accurate, his assessment would be a major boon to western countries scrambling to find a negotiated solution to the Afghan war. Talking to the Taliban was the principal focus of a major conference on Afghanistan held in London this week.

But how to divorce the Taliban from its al-Qaida allies who have provided funding, expertise and ideological drive over the past eight years is one of the major headaches facing diplomats and intelligence officers.

Few know the Taliban as well as Tarar, who is sometimes called the "godfather of the Taliban" owing to his pivotal role in fostering the group's emergence during the chaos of Afghanistan's 1990s civil war.

Speaking at his home in Rawalpindi, the 65-year-old downplayed the significance of reports that the head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, met senior Taliban commanders in Dubai earlier this month for "talks about talks".

"The people who went over there didn't have any value. There were no hardcore people from Mullah Omar's shura," he said, citing refugees and "people coming from Afghanistan" as his sources.

Tarar said Taliban talks could succeed only through direct engagement with Omar, the one-eyed leader whom he trained in guerrilla warfare during the 1980s.

Tarar still speaks affectionately of his former student, who has not been seen publicly since 2001. "He is a good man. He is for his country, not for any mischief," he said.

Tarar warned that any attempts to break the Taliban through cash bribes or "reconciliation" schemes would fail. "They are trying to damage the main actors, to isolate them. But I know the Afghan psyche. It won't work," he said.

Despite a welter of speculation this week there are few hard facts about the prospects of negotiations with the Taliban any time soon. It remains unclear whether the insurgents, who have spread to 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, are ready to negotiate, or would prefer to simply await the departure of western troops.

Tarar was a key link between Pakistan intelligence and the Taliban when posted to Afghanistan in the 1990s. He was popular with Afghan militants for his enthusiastic embrace of their culture and his shared religious zeal.

He shares the hostility to US policy common to many Pakistani officers. The Afghan war cannot succeed because there is a lack of "conviction", he said.

"If the Americans bring a superior faith, or a convincing cause, they can win. But they don't have it. Even their own soldiers are unhappy," he said.

The ISI is likely to play a key role in any talks with the Taliban. A senior western official said the ISI's co-operation was vital – if not to aid negotiations, then at least to prevent the spy agency sabotaging them.


Declan Walsh in Rawalpindi

The GuardianTramp

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