January 8th, 2008 09:50 EST
Afghan former rebel lands state role in ex-fiefdom
KABUL (Reuters) - A former senior Taliban commander has been appointed government district chief of the fiefdom he once controlled as an insurgent leader, Afghan officials confirmed on Tuesday.
Mullah Salaam, a high-ranking governor during the Taliban's rule and a diehard insurgent after they were toppled by a U.S.-led force in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, is the new head of Musa Qala in turbulent Helmand province.
His appointment is a propaganda coup for the government as it desperately tries to woo "untainted" Taliban insurgents to its side. Thousands of people, mostly civilians, were killed last year in the worst violence since the Taliban's ousting.
"It is consistent with the Afghan government policies," said Humayun Hamidzada, a spokesman for Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
"The president has said before that all those former Taliban who come and accept the constitution and who want to participate in the political process through non-violent means ... they are welcome."
While the government insists it does not negotiate with the Taliban, it is an open secret that unofficial emissaries regularly try to persuade insurgents to cross lines in exchange for amnesty.
Hamidzada said Salaam had played a key role in recapturing Musa Qala from the Taliban late last year and had helped bring unity to the local community. He said Salaam had provided invaluable intelligence to government forces.
"He is now at the service of his people and he enjoys the support of the government as well as the support of the people," Hamidzada said.
The fate of Musa Qala has been a sore point between the government, NATO-led forces and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
British troops leading the fight against the Taliban in Helmand controversially abandoned the district after striking an agreement with local elders for them to police themselves.
The move apparently angered U.S. and Afghan officials -- especially after Taliban forces swiftly took control of the district, which lies at the heart of Afghanistan's poppy growing and opium producing industry.
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's heroin and over half of that originates from Helmand alone.
Mullah Salaam was the governor of Uruzgan province until 2001, when the Taliban were toppled and scattered throughout Afghanistan's south and east.
He was captured and jailed for six months, but after being released as part of a plan to win over ex-fighters, he returned immediately to the insurgency and became the Taliban's top commander for Musa Qala.
Married with four wives and 20 children, Salaam is said to be very influential among the Pashtun tribes -- particularly in Musa Qala itself.
Salaam told Reuters that the Taliban had been divided for a while in Musa Qala, but the majority were behind him.
"There are two groups of Taliban fighters in Musa Qala and I have the backing of the major one. The Taliban who are against peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, I will fight them," he said.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by David Fox and Alex Richardson)