Ex-Taliban hiding in plain sight

Monday, February 11, 2002

MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan -- On the rutted dirt road leading out of town, ragged little boys at play and turbaned men with grenade launchers point the way. Everyone knows how to get to the home of the man they call "the commander."

Only a few months ago, Gulam Mohammed Hotak was on the front lines with his Taliban troops. Now he's back in his home village, saying he wants to stay out of politics and fighting. But he's still got a cadre of loyal fighters -- and a cache of weapons big enough to worry the Afghan authorities.

Hotak -- a respected local figure whose cushion-lined sitting room is full of grizzled village elders and wiry comrades-in-arms with Kalashnikovs clanking -- is a case study in the tremendous complications the interim government of Hamid Karzai faces in trying to eradicate the remnants of the Taliban.

U.S. commanders of the war in Afghanistan speak often of rooting out remaining pockets of the Islamic militia -- but men like Hotak illustrate just how deep those roots may run, especially in villages where family ties and enduring blood loyalties take precedence over passing political alliances.

Like many local commanders across Afghanistan, particularly Pashtun tribal leaders like himself, Hotak threw in his lot with the Taliban when they took over his home province, Wardak, just west of Kabul -- in line with that long Afghan tradition of forming allegiances, however fluid, with the side that looks set to triumph.

The Taliban did just that. From 1994 onward, they used Maidan Shahr, 25 miles southwest of Kabul, as a staging ground for their assault on the capital and points north. Hotak, who was a well-known mujahedeen commander during the long fight against the Soviets, proved a valuable battlefield asset for the Taliban, taking part in fierce fighting against northern alliance troops on the barren Shomali plain north of the capital.

Others in his family, too, made a place for themselves in the Taliban power structure. His brother, Haji Musa Hotak, became the Taliban deputy planning minister -- and, like most of those in the Taliban leadership, fled into hiding when the Islamic militia collapsed.

Hotak, however, saw no reason to go into hiding. His ties to the family village of Mamakai, outside Maidan Shahr, went back generations. His standing in the community was undiminished, his kinship ties as strong as ever.

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