Taliban hard-liners have in recent weeks attacked allied and Afghan forces with growing frequency in the mountainous hinterlands of southeastern Afghanistan. But this has not dissuaded Afghan President Hamid Karzai from beginning discreet talks with moderates in the Taliban ranks. The unprecedented talks, which began last week, seem to have the Bush Administration's blessing. Karzai's mediator to the Taliban is its former Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, who was released last Monday after 20 months in custody at a U.S. military base near Kabul.
Muttawakil remains close to his former captors. His family says he stays at the U.S. base in Kandahar for his own protection. Taliban hard-liners, including former Afghan leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, consider Muttawakil a traitor for having surrendered to U.S. forces and have ordered his assassination. Still, his family tells TIME, Muttawakil has taken the risk of sounding out some of his former comrades in Kandahar.
Karzai's chief aide, Omar Daudzay, told a Kabul radio station that "the talks were initiated at the Taliban's request." But why has Karzai, of all people--the man who rode into Afghanistan on a motorcycle soon after the Sept. 11 attacks to foment an anti-Taliban revolt among Pashtun tribes--responded to their overtures? In a word, pragmatism. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are gaining ground in remote areas, where they have found support among Pashtun tribesmen who feel Karzai's government is too top-heavy with Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara tribal leaders--their rivals for political power. By bringing moderate Taliban onboard, Karzai hopes he can garner support among the Pashtun and split the Taliban's ranks. But the President's program could falter at the start: Karzai's advisers say Muttawakil has already declined a Cabinet post, and is considering asylum in an Arab country--possibly Qatar--far from Mullah Omar's long memory and vengeful grasp. --By Tim McGirk and Rahimullah Yusufzai