KABUL, Afghanistan – Weary after 23 years of war, the burly man who helped launch the much-despised Taliban movement sighed when asked why he defected.
"I want peace. I have wanted it since the Taliban began," Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar said in his second-story office, surrounded by potted plants and books neatly stacked on shelves.
Books are his passion, said the former Taliban deputy interior minister and friend of supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Some of them, decorated with ornate calligraphy, are religious. Others are about the history of Kabul, the history of Afghanistan — all in his native Pashto language.
"I love history," he said. "Ours has been a sad one."
The saddest episode of all, he said, was the destruction in March by the Taliban of the world's largest standing Buddha, hewn from a cliff face in the 3rd and 5th centuries. Its destruction caused an international outcry.
At the time, Khaqzar told The Associated Press that it would have been better if "they would have cut the throat of my son." He had refused to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals by his fellow Taliban members.
There were no guns in his small sitting room, but next door his guards sat with their Kalashnikovs by their side, sipping tea.
Khaqzar is a Pashtun, as were most of the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, which forced them out of Kabul with the help of punishing U.S. and British bombing raids, represent the country's minority ethnic groups.
Ethnic divisions in Afghanistan have always run deep, but the rift is even wider today because of massacres by both the Taliban and their enemies, who are now the Northern Alliance rulers.
"We have to unite. We don't have any choice if we want to keep our country together," Khaqzar said, garnering nods from elderly Pashtun gentlemen gathered in his office.
Pockets of Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan are still in Taliban hands. Khaqzar said that won't last.
Already, he said, tribesmen are drifting away from the Taliban. They are putting their faith in the U.N. peace process that takes its first tentative step with a conference in Germany this week.
Khaqzar said that in eastern Paktia province, the largest tribe, the Zardran, had abandoned the Taliban. In southern Afghanistan, the leader of the large Popolzai tribe, Hamid Karzai, was rallying supporters away from the Taliban.
"We have to have strong Pashtuns. We are one country. We must all be a part of a new government," he said.
Khaqzar's presence in Kabul was surprising. He had refused to take shelter in the Northern Alliance stronghold of Gulbahar, north of Kabul, where he would be safe from renegade soldiers who may want to seek revenge.
His beard, dress and turban were unchanged. He had not altered his appearance to be less identifiable as a former Taliban.
Wrapped in a white shawl, Khaqzar leaned forward as he spoke about his frustration at the increasing control Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network exert on the movement.
He said bin Laden was an unknown to him until the Taliban took control in 1996. The Taliban movement, he said, had been a way to bring peace to his warring nation in 1994, when rival factions were destroying Kabul and the highways were overrun by bandits and thieves.
He can't explain why the influence of bin Laden grew so strong, but said the Saudi exile and his Al Qaeda network had taken control of the Taliban's defense and administration in the last two years.
He criticized Omar's refusal to hand over bin Laden.
"It's true our tradition respects guests, but we don't need guests who do these horrible things," he said, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Bin Laden and Al Qaeda operated throughout Afghanistan, he said, and had training camps in every province.
"Two years ago, I wouldn't have said bin Laden was such a strong man," Khaqzar said. But that changed quickly as he ingratiated himself into the Taliban hierarchy.
Khaqzar denied that bin Laden's money won him influence. He said bin Laden found like-minded people among the Taliban who shared his vision of an Islamic revolution and his hatred of the West — especially the United States.
More than once, Khaqzar said, he urged his old comrade-in-arms, Mullah Omar, to give up bin Laden, end the fighting and work with the United Nations.
He spoke frequently to journalists in the last two years, explaining the cracks within the Taliban, giving what information he had about Al Qaeda — but all off the record, knowing his opinions would be a death sentence.
"When we took Kabul, bin Laden was with Mullah Rabbani," Khaqzar said, referring to Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was president when bin Laden moved here in 1996.
"I said to him, 'We are good Muslims here. We don't need any help in being good Muslims. It is time for you to leave. It is time for you to go to your own country."'