Afghanistan: A Moderate Defies the Taliban

Agha Jan Motasim urged moderation—and was nearly killed. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on the Afghan insurgency’s deepening splits over peace talks.

Not so long ago, Agha Jan Motasim was one of the most important men in the Afghan Taliban. That was before he was sacked as head of the ruling Quetta Shura’s political committee—and before the day last August when someone pumped him full of bullets and left him for dead on a street in Karachi. No one has claimed responsibility for the broad-daylight assassination attempt, but it’s clear that hardliners in the group wanted him out of the way, and Motasim believes he knows why. He dared to suggest that the group should respect the civilian population’s humanitarian needs and should open peace talks.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast from his current home in Ankara, Motasim talked about what went wrong. “Due to a lack of understanding, some of my colleagues and friends did not agree with my concept that the Taliban should be a political movement as well,” he says. “My differences of opinion were not with the rest of the shura but with a few Taliban hardliners.” His conversation with The Daily Beast was the Western media’s first on-the-record interview with a senior Taliban minister and leader since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Last year the Quetta Shura finally approved peace contacts with America and the West. The talks are currently suspended, but the insurgency still seems to be tearing itself apart in a fierce dispute over whether to engage in negotiations and with whom. Those who defy the Quetta Shura’s strict line are risking arrest by the council’s enforcers—or possibly even death. Only last month, the powerful southern commander Maulvi Ishmael, a former head of the shura’s Military Committee, was arrested and imprisoned by Taliban forces for allegedly sponsoring unauthorized contacts between local Taliban officers and representatives of the Kabul government’s High Peace Council.

Motasim’s Taliban credentials were no less impressive. Until the collapse of the regime, he served as Mullah Mohammad Omar’s minister of the treasury. After the movement was driven into exile, Motasim was one of the first leaders to begin organizing and raising funds for the Afghan insurgency inside Pakistan’s tribal area. As a member of the the Quetta Shura and head of the ruling council’s key political committee, he had access to the Taliban’s biggest donors in Pakistan and in the oil-rich Gulf states.

That ended in 2009, after he reportedly was tried and found guilty by a Taliban council on charges of embezzlement and opening unauthorized contacts with Western representatives. For years he had been suspected of absconding with millions of dollars from the state treasury when the regime fell, although he still insists he never stole a penny and denies that the council found him guilty of anything. He tells The Daily Beast he handed over everything to the appropriate people before fleeing Kabul.

But embezzlement wasn’t his only alleged crime. In fact, his biggest sin seems to have been his penchant for independent action outside the Taliban’s decision-making hierarchy. He particularly made enemies in the movement by urging peace talks with the Americans and the West. “Motasim was the first to realize that besides military power the Taliban must have a political and peace program,” says a high-ranking Taliban official, requesting anonymity for security reasons. “He was the first to open back channels to the West, years ago.”

Motasim’s fall from grace began in 2007 when he unilaterally opened secret peace contacts with European representatives in the Gulf. “A political settlement is a must for the Afghan conflict,” he tells The Daily Beast. “More war will only bring more mourning and danger to the people of Afghanistan,” Nor does he share the hardliners’ desire to restore Omar’s regime to full power in Afghanistan. “I think a complete Taliban regime is not the solution,” he adds. “The solution is to take on board the other groups and parties in Afghanistan”:

Even beyond those challenges, Motasim says he incurred the extremists’ wrath by urging that humanitarian relief groups be allowed to carry out development work in in Taliban-controlled areas. “We realized some NGO work could provide real assistance to the poor people of Afghanistan,” he says. “Schools are a must and shouldn’t be burned out. Common Afghans should not be stopped from an education. Those NGOs do not have a political agenda and are eager to serve the poor people of Afghanistan”.

Despite his moderate views, Motasim was regarded as a potential rival and possible replacement for Mullah Omar’s then second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. That ended in 2009, when Baradar summarily kicked him off the Quetta Shura and stripped him of his others posts. Pakistani security forces arrested Baradar in early 2010, and he hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Motasim was arrested a month later but quickly released again, which gave rise to speculation that he was in cahoots with Pakistan’s intelligence services.

Motasim and his family moved to Karachi, but he stayed in close contact with his supporters inside the Taliban. With their help and his own deep pockets, he financed and commanded a jihadist militia in Kandahar and Helmand provinces until he was gunned down last August. Even now he says he has not abandoned the armed struggle. “We might have made mistakes, but this war and our resistance were imposed on Taliban,” he says. “We had no option left but to fight.” He insists he holds no grudge against the movement’s leaders. “I did not leave the Taliban,” he says. “I am a Talib, I was a Talib, and will remain a Talib. I have no issues with [accountability committee chief] Mullah Gul Agha Akhund or anyone else in the Taliban shura.”

Motasim says he still can’t be sure his hardline rivals in the group are the ones who tried to kill him.

He points out that Karachi was in the throes of violent ethnic conflict when he was gunned down. “At the time I got shot in Karachi, the city was burning with the worst target killings,” he says. “I may have been a victim of that violence.” This past January he moved his family to Turkey, where he’s continuing to recuperate from his bullet wounds.

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Despite the nearly successful attempt on his life, Motasim has remained active in the insurgency. “His shooting and the arrest of Maulvi Ishmael were clear messages that no one should cross the leadership’s line,” says the high-ranking Taliban official, who knows Motasim well. “But Motasim is not listening. He may come back [to Afghanistan and Pakistan] after his medical treatment in Turkey.” His defiance, his personal wealth, and his original thinking have all helped to keep him influential within the insurgency’s ranks. “A number of top people in the Taliban leadership like his political and peace agenda,” adds the officer. “They like his flexibility.”

Over the years since the Taliban’s fall, Motasim says he has heard from Mullah Omar from time to time, and he believes they’re still on good terms. “In the early years after the collapse, we were in written contact with Mullah Sahib,” Motasim says. “But [to make those messages] more authentic and reliable, he was sending out audio messages occasionally,” Two of Omar’s couriers brought him the messages, he says. How did he know it was the supreme leader’s voice? “Mullah Omar and I worked in one room for seven years,” Motasim says. “I am familiar with his tone and accents. I am sure it was Mullah Omar voice.” He says the most recent audio recording came just a year ago: “The last time I heard his voice was in April 2011. He was talking about important issues.”

Motasim says he’s no defector. The only reason he’s in Turkey is for assistance in recovering from his gunshot wounds, he says. Still, he seems to have found a warm welcome there despite the presence of his name on U.S. and United Nations terrorism blacklists. His hosts want their country to play a more active and high-profile role in the search for an Afghan peace agreement. “I am thankful to Turkey,” Motasim says. “They offered me medical treatment without any political conditions. I’m in Ankara only for humanitarian medical assistance.”

Nevertheless, Turkey’s hospitality toward Motasim is said to worry some senior Taliban leaders. They fear that other Taliban commanders might follow his lead and seek refuge in Muslim countries other than Pakistan. “Some Taliban fear Turkey could become a safe, new nest for disaffected commanders,” says the high-ranking officer. The Taliban can’t afford to keep losing leaders like Motasim and Ishmael.