Interview with Taliban leader in Pakistan

Face-to-face meeting with 'slight' man driven by a cause proves to be an eye-opener: passion runs deep.

Face-to-face with 'slight' man driven by a cause

I have spent a lot of time in Pakistan and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, but the longer I'm here, the less I seem to understand the tribal politics.

My cameraman Sat Nandlall and I were able to travel up into the tribal areas of Pakistan, to the village of Butkhela, a Taliban stronghold, about 30 minutes, I am told, from the Afghan border by horse (longer by car).

Our driver weaved his way over winding mountain roads past jingle trucks (Pakistani dump trucks with little bells on the bumpers) barrelling down from the other direction.

We had to make several stops along the way to make sure we had safe passage. This is an area rife with militants and criminals whose favourite pastime is armed robbery and kidnapping.

We stopped at one place and had tea and cookies for an hour, a Pakistani tradition. Then we got the nod to say we could visit Sufi Muhammad's home.

I had never seen a picture of this Taliban leader, a man some authorities call one of the more dangerous militants in the country. He had spent the past six years in prison after being captured leading more than 10,000 Taliban into Afghanistan in 2001. Most of them were killed. He and a few of his followers made it back to Pakistan, where they were arrested.

The Pakistan government recently released him from prison, a goodwill gesture to show how serious it is about cutting a peace deal with the militants. The new government figures that sending thousands of troops into the tribal belt to crush them by force didn't work, so the other option is to talk to them.

We felt pretty safe on the way up, but I was a little nervous (to say the least) when we arrived in his village. He agreed to do an interview with us, the only one he has granted since being released from prison.

First we had to dress in traditional Pakistani clothes, which are actually quite comfortable. But Muhammad's people told us when we got there he wouldn't allow us to film him. Not a great deal for a television story. We could however, record his voice.

Finally meeting this terror of the Taliban, however, I was taken aback. He was slight in stature, with thick glasses and a long beard, wearing a black turban. It was difficult to believe this soft-spoken man had led all those fighters.

Don't think I am soft on the Taliban, as I have seen their work all over Afghanistan and Pakistan; it was just surprising how meek and mild he was, though six years in a Pakistani prison will do that.

But this blog is not so much about interviewing Taliban leaders as it is a discussion of talking peace with militants responsible for blowing up cars, killing innocent people in markets, even bombing the funeral of a victim killed in a suicide bombing.

Shariah law is the issue

I sat down and had a rational, reasonable conversation with this man. His solution to achieving peace was simply that Pakistan had to adopt Shariah law. Yes, that's the sometimes oppressive religious law: women are required to wear burkas, they can't go to school, men risk severe punishment if their beards aren't long enough, no music, no billiards, no dancing, few if any modern-day appliances. Violators face brutal punishment.

There are some positive things about Shariah law though; a council of elders listens to disputes and decides the outcome based on evidence, sort of like a native healing circle back home, but that's not enough to sell it to the West.   But if the new government introduces Shariah law, Muhammad says he will renounce violence. I don't think that is going to happen.

Just visit parliament in Islamabad, and you will see plenty of SUVs and spiffy Italian tailored suits. No, this parliament won't give into threats and lose all that. And Pakistan, believe it or not, is a fairly liberal society. There are burkas here, abuse against women is an enormous problem, but there are a lot of modern, forward-thinking people as well.

The prospect of Pakistan negotiating with the Taliban tends to make Western leaders sick. They fear, as do many critics here, that a deal would allow the Taliban to focus its attention on Western forces in Afghanistan, including Canadians.

That's a question I put to another Taliban leader who agreed to speak with us. Mohallanh Alham is a large man who runs a religious school in a nearby village. He and one of his co-leaders invited us in after prayers for the interview.

You would never think these men were Taliban. They laughed and made us feel quite at ease. One of them was like a favourite uncle, a little portly, with a grand laugh and a flair for telling a good joke.

But when it came down to a discussion about the peace talks, their demand was inflexible: the implementation of Shariah law, or else a fight.

No simple answer

So here's the problem: President Musharraf's way of dealing with the militants didn't work. He poured thousands of troops into the tribal region of Pakistan to crush the militants, and, if anything, they are stronger today then they were a few years ago.

The new government wants to talk and work out a deal to bring peace. But what happens with Afghanistan? The militants won't give up fighting there until the Western troops are gone, but the West has invested far too much to leave.

Tighten up the border, so the Taliban can't cross back and forth at will? Well, anyone who has been there, or seen a map of the region, knows the rugged terrain makes that impossible.

Some believe it's necessary to win over the local population, which has largely been ignored by Pakistan, receiving few services, education or medical facilities.  But all the Taliban have to do is use a few well-placed bombs to scare people off.

Some of our sources have told us there are many negotiations with the Taliban, both open and secret; there have even been suggestions the Canadians are doing it, though I have no evidence of that.

But after visiting with these men, it was clear to me they are willing to die for what they believe in, regardless of whether we think it is right or wrong. Afghani, Pakistani and Western troops are also making the same sacrifices. Each side thinks the other is wrong. So what's to negotiate here? Neither side will ever convince the other its position is right. So do we keep fighting, keep talking, or just abandon the people of Afghanistan? I don't have an answer.

It boils down to a system of beliefs that neither side is willing to compromise on. Unless that changes, unless some tangible bridge between these divides is found, my grandkids will be reporting this same story, 20 years from now.