Ahmed Shah Mehzai looks like an affable granddad as he gets up from his afternoon prayers in his office-cum-living room. Inside the sprawling building overlooking the Iranian embassy in Kabul, two of his sons are vying for his attention. But on Election Day in Afghanistan, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister in the pre-Taliban government of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (currently branded as a terrorist by the US State Department), is keen to stand up and speak against Hamid Karzai and “his useless elections”.
Taking his Pashtun cap off, the leader of the Hezb-e-Ikhtedar Islami Afghanistan speaks in English, “There’s an Afghan saying: ‘No one can fatten one’s horses while a war is on.’ These elections are a joke. How can they mean anything when thousands of Afghans are being killed and are suffering?” His decision to boycott these elections, he insists, doesn’t stem from an antipathy towards holding polls per se. “After the Taliban government was ousted in 2001, we were all full of hope. We expected the international community to help rebuild Afghanistan. Instead, eight years later, we have Karzai handing the country to foreign forces who, along with his ministers, are making money while the Afghan people languish.”
His views on the Taliban aren’t something that the Kabul government and its supporters are willing to hear. “Today, the Afghan people have no power. Karzai is weak and surrounded by weak and unscrupulous advisors. Why was the future of Afghanistan decided by outsiders in Bonn in 2001? Why haven’t all shades of leaders representing all Afghans been allowed to play a role in building Afghanistan? The Taliban, don’t they suffer? Why doesn’t Karzai talk to them?”
Mehzai is at pains to underline the fact that he has problems with the Taliban too. When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, he was attending a Unesco convention as Education Minister and had to go on exile to Turkey and then to London from which he returned to Kabul only after the Taliban were ousted by US-led forces. “But you must understand that the Taliban is being used as a scapegoat for all the injustices being carried out. What about the indiscriminate killings, the raids being conducted by the international forces? Isn’t that terrorism also?” He also points out that narcotics has been on the rise because of the nexus between ministers in Karzai’s government “fattening themselves” and international drug markets. “Why is the Taliban also blamed for opium? Because it’s easy to blame them for everything.”
But surely the violent tactics employed by the Taliban and other insurgency groups allied to them are something that propels the war and the suffering of the Afghan people? “Of course they need to change, they must change But somebody has to talk to them. Somebody who wants to talk to them seriously. It helps the weak men [in government] to keep them out of the fray.” What he proposes is a
(gathering of tribes) which will be all-inclusive, “Karzai, [Abdullah] Abdullah, Hekmatyar, Mullah Omar, everyone”.
On August 12, 2009, Mehzai was invited by Stanley McChrystal, the new Commander of the International Assistance Force (ISAF), to “speak frankly”. There were 60 ISAF field commanders attending and the Pashtun leader spoke his mind. “I told him about the atrocities. I also told him that these killings and raids are helping the Taliban to become more powerful. I also told him that first there the war has to be stopped and there has to be a total withdrawal of foreign forces. There has to be a deadline. In this respect, the new Obama administration has changed its strategy and that is good.”
He is candid about Pakistan, usually seen as an antagonistic neighbour. “Afghanistan is a sovereign State. But neighbours like Pakistan and Iran are meddling with our affairs. This must stop. But the fact remains that we have to have better relations. We have a border with Pakistan and some 200 road links with it. And Karzai plays a game of pitting India against Pakistan for his own purpose. India must not encourage Karzai to fight with Pakistan. Who knows, Afghanistan could even play a role in bettering India-Pakistan relations.”
Even as he has boycotted the “Karzai elections,” he sees Afghanistan’s future as a developed, independent Islamic nation. He ventures outside and proudly shows the building under construction that in two months time will house the Mashal University. “Mashal means ‘flame’. This will be a private university affiliated to Delhi’s [Jawaharlal] Nehru University,” he says as gets into his Toyota van. “Yes, Indian teachers will come to teach Afghan students. This is a country that is hungry to learn. Enjoy your stay in Kabul.” The man seen as being sympathetic towards the Taliban scratches his head under his cap and is driven away while his two boys wave from the front seat.