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14 April 2024

Khairkhwa: A Taliban bargaining chip for peace


One of five Taliban detainees up for possible release by the United States in the name of peace, Khairullah Khairkhwa, divides opinion among those he once ruled in western Afghanistan.

The man who used to govern Herat province is claimed by some to be one of the more liberal and diplomatic figures from the repressive 1996-2001 regime, while others accuse him of presiding over murderous campaigns.

Khairkhwa, who has been in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for nearly 10 years, is now one of the bargaining chips in "confidence building" measures ahead of talks between the Taliban and Washington.

The hardline Islamists, who have waged a 10-year insurgency since being ousted from power by a US-led invasion in 2001, have demanded the release of the five Taliban detainees ahead of negotiations in the Gulf state of Qatar.

With his thick, bushy dark beard, strong clear features and deadpan stare, Khairkhwa conforms to the typical image of an ethnic Pashtun Talib, but he claims to have joined the regime only to rid the country of corruption.

"To make transportation and communication easy for the people and to make bribery go away," Khairkhwa, who is about 45, cited as his motivation in testimony to a military review board in Guantanamo Bay.

Declassified US documents, however, suggest Khairkhwa was one of the Taliban's most senior officials, with easy access to regime leader Mullah Omar and to then Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Khairkhwa, acting interior minister after Al-Qaeda's September 11 attacks on the US, is also accused of having been a bloody commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban took it during civil conflict in 1996.

He denies playing any military role, but that does not convince the now head of police for western Afghanistan, Sayed Ahmad Sami, who fled to Uzbekistan during the Taliban's rule.

"I heard he killed hundreds of people up north," he told AFP, before adding: "Don't let Khairullah Khairkhwa come back."

He is also accused of acting as gatekeeper to a military training camp bin Laden is said to have controlled in Herat, and of peddling opium across the border to Iran. He denies those charges.

He was also a Pashto-language Taliban spokesman, giving interviews to media outlets including the BBC and Voice of America.

Khairkhwa insists that his job was to oversee tax collection, the police and the import of goods from Iran.

In testimony to a US court, he variously claims that he would rest, work in a bazaar, grow crops or return to government if he goes back to Afghanistan. "In the future if I ever work it will be for my people and my country," he said.

Mullah Ghulam Farooq Hosseini, a religious teacher in Herat who was in Iran during the Taliban's rule, described Khairkhwa as a "really good man".

"He was doing a lot of good things for society and he was not as extreme as the others," he told AFP.

But people who were children in Herat during Taliban times told AFP of "dark days", seeing dead bodies in the street and being told to return home quickly from school and not venture outside.

After the US-led invasion, Khairkhwa left for Pakistan, where he was later detained.

Washington has not yet announced if or when it will definitely release the prisoners. If the deal does go ahead, they would reportedly be transferred to some kind of house arrest in Qatar.

In return, the Taliban are expected to free US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, captured in Afghanistan in June 2009 and shown in several videos released by the militants.