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Taliban defector was a CIA informant for years

uploaded 30 Nov 2001


KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 29 -- Within the secretive Taliban hierarchy that ran this country for five years, it was not hard to figure out how Osama bin Laden derived much of his influence. When the Saudi-born heir to a construction fortune called on Taliban officials, according to a former minister, he often brought wads of cash and distributed it freely -- sometimes taking out $50,000, even $100,000 at a time.

"He had money in his pocket," recalled Mohammed Khaksar, who served as the Taliban's deputy interior minister. "Any time he wanted, he would just pull it out and give it to them."

What bin Laden got for all this largess was equally clear -- the freedom to operate his al Qaeda terrorist network from Afghanistan without interference. "There wasn't anybody who had power over Osama," Khaksar said. "He did whatever he wanted."

For the first time, a former senior Taliban official has emerged publicly to provide a glimpse inside the militia that created perhaps the world's most repressive Islamic state and a haven for international terrorists blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Once a close friend of the Taliban's supreme leader, Mohammad Omar, Khaksar broke with his compatriots when they fled Kabul earlier this month and last week declared his support for the Northern Alliance now in charge in the capital, becoming the highest-ranking defector from the Taliban inner circle.

In an interview today at the comfortable Kabul compound where he still lives with his wife and tends his garden, Khaksar portrayed a regime bought and paid for by bin Laden's millions. The alleged terrorist lavished gifts on Taliban leaders -- cash, fancy cars and other valuables. If the Taliban was planning an attack in the years-long civil war with Northern Alliance guerrillas, he said, bin Laden would have 50 pickup trucks delivered to ferry fighters to the front.

"Al Qaeda was very important for the Taliban because they had so much money," Khaksar said without offering any precise figures. "They gave a lot of money. And the Taliban trusted them."

The relationship between bin Laden and the Taliban leadership clearly also had roots in an ideological convergence: their common belief in radical Islam and their anti-Western views. But Khaksar said he was struck by the primary role that money came to play in recent years. While his account of his own actions is impossible to confirm and may be colored by his desire to distance himself from the Taliban, reports by U.S. intelligence agencies have described in detail how bin Laden bankrolled the Taliban, providing an estimated $100 million in cash and military assistance since 1996.

A bearish man with searching eyes, a long beard streaked with white and a weather-worn face making him look older than his 41 years, Khaksar played an important role in the Taliban from the beginning. An ethnic Pashtun like most members of the Taliban, he was one of the early key figures in the movement, which emerged in 1994 and swept to power in Kabul in 1996.

He served first as intelligence chief of the movement and later as deputy interior minister, supervising security in the capital, where brutal tactics were often used to enforce restrictions on women and modern life. While Omar remained in his home base in Kandahar, much of the rest of the government operated out of Kabul, and Khaksar had a place at the table through many of its most controversial decisions.

Over the years, however, he became disenchanted, particularly by the arrival of bin Laden and his foreign fighters. He complained off the record to reporters as early as 1999 and kept up a regular secret dialogue with the top military commander on the other side, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated in September, allegedly by bin Laden operatives.

Abdullah, the Northern Alliance foreign minister, said the information provided by Khaksar was particularly valuable. "It was enough to make him an exception to all the Taliban leadership," he said, noting that for years, "Commander Massoud was in constant contact with him."

Khaksar said today that he also served as a clandestine contact for U.S. intelligence services while serving the Taliban. Agents disguised as journalists visited him to solicit inside information, he said. "They came two or three times, and they knew about my policy and about my opinion," he said.

In Washington, CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said the agency does not comment on such matters but that CIA policy is to not use American media organizations as cover for clandestine operations.

Khaksar has provided enough intelligence to the Northern Alliance to win him continued freedom despite his prominent position in the Taliban. While the alliance has vowed to imprison or kill other senior Taliban leaders, Khaksar remains in his own home, able to travel at will, still guarded by some of the same fighters who surrounded him while he was a Taliban official. He denied any complicity in "actions against humanity."

Spared from retribution by his onetime enemies, Khaksar probably has more to worry about from his former friends. He would be an obvious target for any Taliban operatives or sympathizers still hiding out in the city, but he brushes off concern, placing his trust in his well-armed guards and even declining an offer to relocate him to a safer location in Golbahar, about 50 miles to the north.

In his second-floor office, sitting in front of a bookcase filled with religious texts, Khaksar described his transformation from Taliban security enforcer to lonely dissenter.

"From the beginning, I was against Arabs and other foreigners coming to Afghanistan but the other Taliban told me I must not say that," Khaksar said. "At that time, I felt when foreigners come to our country, our country would be destroyed. And now you see what's happened."

Khaksar said he met bin Laden once, in 1996, and the two did not hit it off. "I told him, 'Now there's no jihad in Afghanistan. Afghanistan can solve our own problems. We don't need you,' " he recalled. "He got very upset and I never saw him again."

Khaksar became one of the Taliban's most persistent skeptics of the increasingly close relationship with bin Laden. As time wore on, bin Laden tried to win him over, but Khaksar said he never accepted money or cars. Once bin Laden had intermediaries contact him to seek a truce. "I told them to tell Osama bin Laden that I had the same opinion as before: Just leave our country."

Besides Omar, who enjoys a close relationship with bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader had several strong champions within the Taliban, according to Khaksar, including interior minister Abdul Razaq, defense minister Obaidullah, information and culture minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi, security chief Qari Ahmadullah, eastern regional leader Abdul Kabir and prominent commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Khaksar became especially disgruntled in March when the Taliban leadership decided to destroy two ancient Buddha sculptures at Bamian, saying they offended Islam. Documents unearthed since the Taliban's retreat from Kabul suggested that al Qaeda pushed the Taliban into the action that earned international opprobrium.

"It's a historic sculpture; they should not have destroyed it," Khaksar said. "I felt like I lost a member of my family when they destroyed this sculpture."

Khaksar said he had no warning about the Sept. 11 operation to crash airplanes in Washington and New York and did not know if Omar or any other top leaders did. But like many Americans, he immediately had no doubt in his mind who was responsible. The day after the attacks, senior Taliban officials, except for Omar, met in a palace in Kabul to discuss what to do.

"I told the other ministers, 'I told you before the guy would do something bad, and now it will have a bad effect on Afghanistan,' " Khaksar said. "They told me: 'You're going crazy. You shouldn't speak so much.' They said Osama hasn't done such a thing, but if he has done it, it's a good thing that he did. I told them these civilian people who died and these two buildings, they were God's creation. They weren't military soldiers; they were civilians. God will be angry that this was done."

But his colleagues refused to turn over bin Laden, leading to the U.S. bombing campaign that began Oct. 7 and helped weaken Taliban defenses enough to enable the Northern Alliance to overrun the north and finally Kabul. Facing imminent defeat, the Taliban ministers met again on the night of Nov. 12 and agreed to flee the city. Khaksar decided to stay and take his chances with the enemy.

"I told them it's my country, I want to live here."

Source:  The Washington Post
 


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