Why Doesn't the CIA Want to Talk to a Top Ex-Taliban?

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The dusty urban landscape of Kandahar from a rooftop

Mullah Abdulsamata Khaksar has been waiting months for the CIA to talk to him. The former deputy Interior Minister of the Taliban says he has a lot of information to give up, perhaps even some that will lead to Mullah Omar, the fugitive leader of Afghanistan's fallen regime and chief ally of Osama bin Laden. But, until TIME alerted U.S. military officials in Kabul in late January of his willingness to talk, no American officials had debriefed Khaksar. Two weeks after, no senior U.S. intelligence official had spoken to him yet.

The little that Khaksar has divulged — to an American general and his intelligence aide —is tantalizing. For example, after the loss of Kandahar, elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda formed a new group based in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Called "al Farkan," its goal was to wage jihad against the American presence in Afghanistan. Khaksar says that there are people in the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, who know about this and may be involved. He says that the ISI agents are still mixed up with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and that the ISI recently assassinated an Afghan in Paktika province who knew the full extent of ISI's collaboration with al-Qaeda.

According to Khaksar, the reason the U.S. hadn't been able to find Mullah Omar so far is that it has been relying on "liars" and tribal chieftains who were using U.S. firepower to wreak revenge on their ancient enemies. (Khaksar's brother-in-law is Mullah Salaam, one of Omar's closest advisers; indeed, Salaam may be on the run with Omar.) What does Khaksar want for his hoard of information? Safe passage for his family to a location of his choice. Not Pakistan, he says — too dangerous and too full of ex-Taliban and ISI agents who want him silenced. Until the Taliban Foreign Minister surrendered to U.S. forces in Kandahar last week, Khaksar was the most senior Taliban official to have surrendered. The mystery is, why hasn't the CIA come to debrief him?

If the CIA wanted to find the ex-Taliban deputy interior minister, all they had to do was ask the baker at Kabul's diplomatic enclave of Wazir Akbar Khan. The baker drags a flat-iron shaped nan bread from the wood-fired oven, and brushing flour from his hands, points down to a lane of high-walled villas, all with marble facades. These villas are among the city's few spoils of war, and they are grabbed by a new set of commanders every time the city changes hands. When the Taliban fled Kabul, Khaksar, elected to stay behind in his villa, surrendering to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance conquerors.

It's no secret where the ex-Taliban lives. There are a few loyal Pashtun guards at the gate, their weapons hidden but ready. Khaksar says he heard recently that Mullah Omar and a few other Taliban ministers were trying to recruit a hit man to finish him off. "The Taliban have offered a lot of money, and if the assassin dies in completing his mission, the money will go to the assassin's family," Khaksar says. He sits at a desk with a picture of the late Northern Alliance hero, Ahmed Shah Massoud, on his desk, perhaps insurance in case the current rulers of Kabul might begin to doubt his loyalties. As a Taliban, he publicly enforced an edict banning television but he has one prominently displayed in his office. "Even as a Taliban, I had a TV," grinned Khaksar, "but I had to keep it hidden."

The death threats made the ex-Taliban frantic want to see the Americans. Five times he sent letters to the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul, he says, offering to meet the diplomats. Khaksar said he was ready to pass on information that might lead to the capture of the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar and to some al-Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan. But he waited days, weeks, months and nobody contacted him. It's possible that his letters never got to CIA agents inside the embassy. Security at the US embassy compound is on a war alert, with snipers on the roofs and trip flares in the garden. Inside, disorganization reigns. The Marine anti-terrorist soldiers at the gate with their walkie-talkies can never track down any of the diplomats inside. The embassy can't get through to the U.S. military base at Bagram on their sat-phones, either. Standing for an hour at the gate waiting to see the press counselor (who never was located) I saw dozens of Afghans drop off job applications, letters chronicling how a member of their family had been jailed for years by the Taliban suspected of being a CIA spies, and handwritten demands to see the ambassador.

Most probably, Khaksar's five letters are still buried in a mailroom heap, waiting for someone to translate their vital contents from Dari to English and then pass it on to someone in intelligence. Khaksar is baffled by all this. He's seen American war technology at work, rockets hitting speeding Land-Cruisers full of Taliban. So he finds it difficult to comprehend that the embassy of such a mighty nation might misplace not one but five letters. "I just don't understand it," Khaksar says. His information might be outdated or even incorrect, but as deputy interior minister of the Taliban, Khaksar's offer to collaborate should not be dismissed so lightly.