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Former Taliban eyes Afghan presidency

Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi, former Taliban commander and would-be president of Afghanistan, admits he had a certain flare for firing rocket-propelled grenades on Soviet soldiers in his youth.

world Updated: Jul 02, 2009 08:06 IST

Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi, former Taliban commander and would-be president of Afghanistan, admits he had a certain flare for firing rocket-propelled grenades on Soviet soldiers in his youth.

It was, after all, how he acquired his moniker -- Rocketi -- during the Afghan battle to drive out Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

"I could get into places to fire a rocket that other people couldn't," said the portly and turbaned 51-year-old Pashtun, who fired his first rocket when he was 21."People were calling me from everywhere to do this," he said.

More recently, people called on him to stand against President Hamid Karzai in the August 20 elections, he told AFP in an interview in a small office where he said he was confident of victory despite running against 40 other candidates.

His campaign may be dwarfed by the more sophisticated and better-funded ones of heavy hitters Karzai, and former ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, but Rocketi has no doubts about the outcome of the vote. "I will win," he told AFP.

Political analyst Waheed Mujda is not quite so certain, classing Rocketi as one of a catalogue of no-hopers who dominate the ballot paper. But, he says, the inclusion of a former Taliban was a good thing.

"He is one of those who will not get a lot of votes but his presence is important for the show of democracy," Mujda told AFP.

Rocketi is perhaps best remembered as a senior commander in the 1996-2001 extremist Taliban regime and one of the first to surrender when it was toppled by the US-led invasion.

Only a handful of the top tier Islamist militia turned themselves in. Many others, including supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, went into hiding to lead a brutal uprising against Western troops and the new government.

Attacks have peaked this year and the insurgency, which many in Afghanistan believe is orchestrated by commanders protected by Pakistan in safe havens across the eastern border, will top the agenda of the next president.

"Pakistan is my enemy, the Taliban is my enemy. If I think about them, I will get a heart problem. But God has given me a heart that is never afraid," said Rocketi, who believes negotiations are the only way to stop bloodshed.

Talks would have to involve all of Afghan society, including the various militant factions, and be led by a "powerful" international mediator who could push the opposing sides out of their long-held positions, he said.

Karzai has already offered talks and an amnesty to militants who stop fighting and accept the democratic post-Taliban order.

The process has attracted hundreds of foot soldiers but few commanders, among them Rocketi who once served as the Taliban's top military man for the strategic Nangarhar province on the border with Pakistan.

A strong negotiator could win the confidence of the parties and persuade the government to offer more than its thin "come, do not fight anymore. Sit in your house, your life will be secured," Rocketi said.

And militants must be persuaded not to condition the start of talks on the withdrawal of international troops.

Last year he travelled to Saudi Arabia and met King Abdullah as part of a push by Karzai to persuade the respected Islamic leader to host peace talks.

Rocketi said his ties today with the Taliban are almost non-existent.

He was involved a few years ago in trying to negotiate the release of Taliban hostages -- having taken his own captives in Pakistan the 1990s.

But there has been little contact since he entered parliament in 2005. Rocketi said his place on the ballot paper may attract Taliban sympathisers but not the fighters.

"For them, every candidate is the same.... Whoever is working in government -- that is their opposition and they are standing against them."

He criticised Karzai for failing to profit from the enormous support he enjoyed after the Taliban regime was driven out.

"It is a pity he didn't use this huge power to punish big drug traffickers or thieves, or bring peace to disappointed tribes, or institutional reform."

If he had the same support, Rocketi said he would push peace talks, tackle corruption, unemployment and crime, and promote agricultural development.

But Mujda expects that any Taliban voter would choose Karzai rather than a Taliban defector, over perceptions that the incumbent has lost US support and would pressure international troops to set a date for their departure.

Also because Karzai has become an "expert" in presiding over a weak and corrupt government, which only boosts public support for the insurgency, Mujda said.

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