PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The U.S. and Pakistan are intensifying their efforts to split the Taliban from within and now say they would welcome moderate elements of the ruling Afghan militia to join discussions about Afghanistan's future.
So say a number of experts here in Pakistan who argue the policy represents a logical divide-and-conquer strategy and an evolving, albeit grudging, recognition that some of the Taliban's general principles — but not their leaders' support for Usama bin Laden — still enjoy considerable public support.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Secretary of State Colin Powell both took the opportunity at a joint press conference on Tuesday morning to reach out to moderate Taliban elements. They also did nothing to discount reports of a widening split in the Taliban leadership, including the possibility the regime's foreign minister may have defected.
"Former [Afghan] king Zahir Shah, political leaders, moderate Taliban leaders, elements from the [opposition] Northern Alliance, tribal elders, Afghans living outside their country ... all can play a role in this government," Musharraf said, repeating a long-held Pakistani government position that the Taliban, erstwhile Pakistani allies, cannot be left out of discussions.
Powell followed Musharraf's remarks by clearly differentiating between the Taliban leadership and the movement's larger membership, suggesting there was room for moderates in discussions with the U.S.
"The term 'Taliban' defines the current regime," Powell said. "But it also defines a group of individuals or group of people. If you got rid of the regime, there [would] still be those who might find [that] the teachings and feelings and beliefs of that movement are still very important, and to the extent that they are willing to participate in the development of a new Afghanistan."
Powell said later in the press conference that all groups "have to have an opportunity to participate" in the forming of a new government in Afghanistan, indicating a shift in U.S. policy, which had previously made little effort to differentiate among Taliban ranks.
A Pakistani government official told Fox News his government had lobbied the U.S. to be more accepting of moderate Taliban elements. The official said Pakistan had stressed those elements could provide invaluable intelligence as well as logistical support to Americans effort to hunt down bin Laden and his cohorts.
The statements by Powell and Musharraf fueled already rife rumors in Pakistan over the whereabouts and status of Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil. Numerous reports in the local media here said Mutawakkil arrived in Islamabad days ago on a secret and possibly renegade mission, and may have even defected to Pakistan.
Some reports even insisted Powell had taken part in the discussions with Mutawakkil. Powell said yesterday he could not confirm those reports, but said nothing to counter talk his Afghan counterpart had bolted from the Taliban leadership.
Several nominally pro-Taliban Afghan tribal chiefs and opposition figures said they were uncomfortable with the Taliban's relationship with bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network. They said they were particularly worried that bin Laden, a native of Saudi Arabia, controlled Taliban senior leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, and by extension the Afghan government.
"There is really no difference between the Taliban government and Usama bin Laden," Qazi Amin Waqas, who once served as acting prime minister in Afghanistan, said in an interview with Fox News. "He has the power and he has the money to control them."
The U.S. has plainly stated its desire to rid Afghanistan of Mullah Omar, possibly opening the way for a more moderate leader — or a least someone less beholden to bin Laden — to take power. At least one of Omar's homes and one of his cars have been targeted and destroyed in the U.S. attacks, and unconfirmed reports have said Omar and bin Laden may be hiding out together.
Whatever Omar's fate, the Taliban movement as a concept remains popular with many. It swept to power across then-anarchic Afghanistan five years ago with a message of anti-corruption, religious purity and orderly, centralized authority, and maintains strong support throughout Pakistani society.
"I supported the Taliban to the extent that I knew a nationalist government would have to take over," said Dr. Ahmad Hayat Khan, director of the Russia and Central Asia Area Study Center at Peshawar University. "We knew there needed to be change, and they accomplished that. Now the situation is different."
Pakistani officials also told Fox News they expect moderate Taliban elements to eventually boost support among working-class Pakistanis for Musharraf's pro-U.S. policy.
While Musharraf himself remains personally popular with many of his people, a poll released this week said more than 80 percent of those surveyed said they opposed the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan.