Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 21, 2003
Ex-Taliban fighter again shifts loyalty in quest for a job
At War With Terror

Mullah Abdul Salam first became famous for his skill aiming shoulder-fired missiles at Soviet occupation forces, earning the nickname "Rocketi." The Afghan commander then gained notoriety for switching allegiance to the Taliban, in which he ranked high enough to once lunch privately with Osama bin Laden.

Now, Mullah Rocketi has returned to Kabul and is reinventing himself once again.

Nearly two years after he surrendered to the American-led coalition that ousted the Taliban, the colorful commander is angling for a job as a provincial police chief in President Hamid Karzai's fragile government.

"The Taliban are finished," said Rocketi, who received a clean slate after eight months of interrogation by American and Afghan investigators.

In a country with a long tradition of warlords, bandits, and constantly shifting loyalties, assimilating these ex-fighters in a new, more democratic form of government remains a vexing problem.

His campaign for redemption is getting mixed reviews. Some say old warriors such as Mullah Rocketi could help Karzai's government and the U.S.-led military coalition in their struggle to defeat the insurgent Taliban. Others say he represents a bygone Afghanistan, not the modern state that Karzai is attempting to build on the rubble of a quarter century of war.

"He's not qualified," said Helaluddin Helal, deputy minister of interior, whose department is responsible for police. "We're looking to appoint experienced police officers as provincial chiefs. Mullah Rocketi learned how to fight in the mountains. Besides, he committed a lot of human-rights violations."

Rocketi, 46, a bearlike man with thinning hair and a thick beard, denied allegations he committed atrocities against civilians when he was a Taliban commander.

"Sure, I killed soldiers who attacked me," he said. "It was my job. But these accusations that I killed women and children are rubbish."

Rocketi is not alone. Many former Taliban renounced the fundamentalist Islamic movement after its defeat by the U.S.-led coalition but are unwelcome in the new government and feel threatened by both sides.

"There are a lot of people with his background who have been trying to reconcile with the government," said Helena Malikyar, a Kabul-based political analyst for New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "They understand that the time of the Taliban is over and want to adjust to the new political realities."

The hostility they face has ethnic undertones. Karzai's government is dominated by ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, whose soldiers helped win the war. They say the former Taliban, who were mostly Pashtuns, should not be permitted to join the new order.

Afghanistan politics is a complex matrix in which ethnic and clan affiliations tell only part of the story. The shifting allegiances, complicated rivalries, and fuzzy alliances confound outsiders, including the international community, which is investing billions of dollars to develop Karzai's regime into a legitimate government that can heal this fractious nation.

Rocketi's reputation for brutality hardly sets him apart - the new government includes many former fighters with dubious human-rights records. The big strike against him is that he left the mujaheddin to join the Taliban, remained until its regime fell, and now wants a fresh start.

"It's not good for a person to switch sides so often," said Hamidullah Kahn Tokhi, a Rocketi rival who is the governor of Maidan-Wardak province. He compared Rocketi to the former Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, still at large.

"If the government gives Mullah Rocketi a position, they might as well give Mullah Omar a job," Tokhi said.

Rocketi does not lack for self-confidence. In an interview at the Kabul compound where he lives with his family, he said he was a better commander than the charismatic Ahmed Shah Massoud, the late anti-Taliban leader who has been elevated to near-sainthood since he was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives Sept. 9, 2001.

Like the lives of many Afghans his age, Rocketi's life was determined largely by conflict. He attended Islamic schools and became a mullah before joining the mujaheddin after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

After the Soviet pullout a decade later, he made news in the 1990s when a Pakistani militia raided one of his border bases to recover U.S.-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles, for which the CIA was paying a substantial bounty. Rocketi retaliated by taking several Pakistani officials and Chinese road engineers hostage. It took months to negotiate their release.

In 1995, he joined the Taliban juggernaut, which by 1996 had captured the capital, Kabul, and soon held all of Afghanistan except for the northern enclave of Massoud's Northern Alliance troops.

Rocketi said he had no regrets about joining.

"When I changed sides to the Taliban, I did so because the people asked me to," he said, sitting cross-legged on a cushion as an aide served green tea. He said he believed in the Taliban's aim to centralize government and reduce the power of regional warlords - the same goals now held by Karzai.

The Taliban went wrong, he said, when it became more fanatical and invited Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorists to be guests of Afghanistan.

Rocketi said he had expressed public concern at the time about bin Laden's conduct of a jihad against the West. As a result, he said, in early 2001 he was invited to lunch with bin Laden and explained his objections to the Saudi native.

"Osama talked with me a long time," he said. "I said to him: 'If you want to do a jihad against America, then go to Arabia. You are creating a lot of problems for us.' I was very, very serious. Osama responded that it was easier to do the jihad from the mountains in Afghanistan than from the desert. There was more protection in the mountains."

After U.S.-led forces brought down the Taliban regime in late 2001, Rocketi agreed to surrender his arms to the coalition. Gul Agha Shirzai, the warlord who had taken control of Kandahar province, gave him amnesty from prosecution.

American agents arrested Rocketi in Kandahar and "invited" him to spend the next nine months being debriefed by Afghan intelligence in Kabul. "They treated me very well, as a friend, as a guest," he said, declining to talk about the nature of the questioning in detail.

"With the Americans, there were not so many questions," he said. "They just asked me if I was willing to help the coalition forces, and I said yes."

Although he has few regrets and does not consider himself vanquished, Rocketi said he was a changed man. He at least knows how to hew to the message of the Karzai government, which is struggling to extend its control across Afghanistan.

"In the past, my ideal way was just to fight, to use a gun," he said. "Now I think it is wiser to talk, to consult with different groups. It's the way to solve our problems." home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth