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Ex-Taliban official says he warned U.S. 3 years ago

| Monday, June 10, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A senior Taliban official said he approached U.S. representatives three years ago for help in replacing the hard-line Islamic leadership but was told Washington was leery of becoming involved in internal Afghan politics, the former official said Sunday.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, a former Taliban intelligence chief and later Afghan deputy interior minister, said he met with U.S. diplomats Gregory Marchese and J. Peter McIllwain in Peshawar, Pakistan, in April 1999 and told them he wanted to oust Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar because of his support for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.

The two Americans promised to contact Washington, Khaksar said. Later, he received a letter — which he showed to The Associated Press — from Marchese saying the United Sates was nervous about backing Afghan factions because of its experience supporting hardline Islamic movements during the war against the Soviets.

"We don't want to make mistakes like we made in the holy war," Marchese said in the letter, written in Afghanistan's Pashto language. "We gave much help and it later went against us."

Marchese added that "my boss is interested" — without identifying him by name. However, Khaksar said that was his last contact with the Americans.

Marchese, now posted in Washington, confirmed the meeting with Khaksar but refused to say what was discussed.

"I can confirm that I met Mullah Khaksar, then the Taliban regime's deputy interior minister, at my home in Peshawar in April 1999," Marchese said in an e-mail. "I can't get into the content of the meeting, however."

It was unclear whether Khaksar's overture was relayed to the highest levels of the Clinton administration. Nor is it clear whether the United States lost an opportunity to neutralize bin Laden and his Taliban protectors before the devastating attacks of Sept. 11.

The State Department on Sunday said it had "no immediate comment" on Khaksar's comments.

Khaksar, a founding member of the Taliban, said he contacted the Americans because he feared the Islamic movement had been hijacked — first by Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency and then by bin Laden and his al-Qaida group.

Khaksar said he and others in the Taliban wanted to "keep Afghanistan for Afghans" but found themselves marginalized because of bin Laden's influence over Mullah Omar. Bin Laden donated suitcases full of money to finance the Taliban's war-effort against the northern-based alliance led by the late guerrilla leader, Ahmed Shah Massood.

Mullah Omar, meanwhile, had fallen under the influence of bin Laden and a clique of Afghan clerics who were graduates from Pakistani religious schools with links to Pakistani intelligence.

"They told him he could be the leader of all the Muslims, bring all Muslims together," said Khaksar, who lives in Kabul. "What were they doing• It wasn't Afghanistan anymore. My thinking was that they would destroy my country."

To meet the Americans, Khaksar journeyed to Pakistan, telling associates he needed medical treatment for a stomach ailment. After a brief stay in Islamabad's Shifa Hospital, he stopped in Peshawar on his way home.

Some low-ranking Taliban friends introduced him to an American teacher at a Christian school, who told him to telephone the Peshawar consulate and mention his name. Kkaksar refused to identify the teacher.

Khaksar said Marchese asked to meet at his home rather than the consulate so that Pakistani intelligence would not learn of the meeting.

"He was there with two other men, an American and an Afghan interpreter," Khaksar said. "He asked me: 'What do you want from us and what can you give us about Osama bin Laden?"'

Khaksar said he told the Americans that he was worried about bin Laden's Arab associations because "one day they would do something in the world, but everything would be on the head of Afghanistan."

Khaksar said he told the Americans that Mullah Omar's clique could be undermined through political action inside Afghanistan.

"I told them the Taliban militarily are too strong, but politically you can defeat them. I told them it is not something you can do in one or two days, but it can be done," he said.

Before leaving, Khaksar said he tore in half a Pakistani five rupee note and gave one part if it to Marchese.

"If anyone comes to you and says they represent me, ask them for my half of the five rupee note," Khaksar told Marchese. "If he doesn't have it, don't believe him. He is a fake."

Aside from the letter, Khaksar said he never heard from U.S. officials again. In his letter, Marchese reminded him of the $5 million U.S. reward — since raised to $25 million — for bin Laden.

"But for me, it wasn't bin Laden that I wanted a program for," Khaksar said. "But for the Americans, it was. For me, it was my country. I was waiting for a program from the Americans, a program to defeat the Taliban and a program to hand over bin Laden.

"Back then, bin Laden's security was not so tight. It was easier to get him. But people would not be crazy enough to try to kill bin Laden unless they could be guaranteed of support behind them."

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