The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 21, 2003
fighter again shifts loyalty in quest for a job
Afghanistan - 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
Now, Mullah Rocketi has returned to Kabul and is reinventing himself
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
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
"Sure, I killed soldiers who attacked me," he said. "It
was my job. But these accusations that I killed women and children are
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
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
"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
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
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."