Interview: Afghan opposition leader to president: trust Taliban at your peril

KABUL Tue Mar 19, 2013 7:43pm IST

Afghan Taliban look on after handing over their weapons as they join the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program in Herat province, February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Mohmmad Shoib/Files

Afghan Taliban look on after handing over their weapons as they join the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program in Herat province, February 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mohmmad Shoib/Files

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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai could face the same grisly fate as the last Soviet-backed communist ruler by trusting the Taliban as he scrambles to secure a peace deal before NATO troops withdraw, Afghanistan's main opposition leader said on Tuesday.

"President Karzai is repeating the same mistake and he thinks that Taliban will show him mercy because of his ethnicity," Ahmad Zia Massoud, leader of the Afghan National Front opposition alliance, told Reuters.

"But Taliban has already announced that the way the president is going, he will end in Ariana Square."

The former president, Mohammad Najibullah, oversaw the withdrawal of occupying Soviet forces in 1989 before he himself was overthrown by the mujahideen opposition guerrillas.

In 1996, when the Taliban took Kabul, Najibullah was dragged behind a truck and publicly hanged in Ariana Square.

Like Najibullah, Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun, as are most of the Taliban, who were toppled in 2001 after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Karzai has reached out to the Taliban, whom he calls brothers, trying to lure them to the negotiating table by offering them a role in politics as the country prepares for the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of next year.

A presidential election is also due next year and a parliamentary poll the following year.

Exploratory talks between the United States and the Taliban began clandestinely in Germany in late 2010, but the insurgents abandoned the process last March, blaming "shaky, erratic and vague" U.S. statements.

Afghan government officials have failed in efforts to secure direct talks with the Taliban. The insurgents refuse to discuss reconciliation with Karzai, calling him a "stooge of the invaders".

Massoud, an ethnic Tajik and a former vice-president, said the Taliban had no intention of brokering peace and would be emboldened to boost their insurgency as foreign troops withdraw.

He said the Taliban's fighting ability was helped by their trade in drugs and extortion which raised $400 million annually.

"We are at a threshold of collapse ... there is no sign of political stability and security in Afghanistan after 2014," he said, calling on the president to resign and the appointment of an interim government to oversee an early election.

"BAD YEAR"

Government officials fear the militants will infiltrate the capital from hideouts, some only 40 minutes drive away, as the warm-weather fighting season gets underway as the snow melts on mountain passes.

Last week, intelligence officials defused an eight-tonne truck bomb in Kabul.

"The Taliban as an enemy are just next to us ... this year will be a very bad year," Massoud said.

Massoud is the younger brother of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, a hero of the war against Soviet forces in the 1980s, and leader of the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban in the 1990s. He was assassinated days before the September 11 attacks.

Karzai has become increasingly vitriolic against the United States, even accusing Washington of colluding with the Taliban.

The United States denies Karzai's assertion. Massoud warned that the president's accusations were eroding the relationship.

"As every day passes, our relations with the international community get worse. Whenever President Karzai makes some remarks against Americans, money goes out of the county and businessmen leave," said Massoud.

He said as tension had risen between Washington and Kabul in the past year, and as Afghanistan prepared to go it alone, some $4.5 billion had poured out of the country and into Dubai where worried Afghans are building homes.

He said his coalition of ethnic Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and Pashtun groups would hold a series of meetings very soon to choose a presidential candidate, and he did not rule being a contender.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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