Saturday, August 6, 2011

Can This Woman Make A Difference?

From The

Meet the woman who could hold the key to peace in Afghanistan

Published Date: 06 August 2011
By Jerome Starkey
in Kabul
Homa Sultani
BLINDFOLDED and bundled into an stranger's car, Afghanistan's most unlikely peace negotiator was driven across Helmand for more than two hours, under the cover of darkness, for a clandestine meeting with the Taleban's supreme leader.

In a mud-brick farmhouse, in an unknown village, Homa Sultani said she spent 45 minutes talking with Mullah Mohammad Omar, in the dead of night.

Then, in front of the self-styled Emir and a dozen of his top lieutenants, she unwrapped her headscarf and threw it on the floor between them.
"I threw my shawl on the floor and said, 'As a woman, as a mother, I beseech you to end the war and make peace,'" she said.

According to Ms Sultani, Mullah Omar agreed. Now she claims to be the only person invested with authority to strike a peace deal.

That alleged encounter was more than a year ago, and when she called a press conference last month to announce her home-baked peace plan, colleagues denounced her as mad, local journalists ridiculed her story and President Hamid Karzai's office said they had many "doubts".

Yet it is a mark of how little is known about the current "talks about talks", allegedly ongoing in Qatar, Norway and Germany between warring sides, that there were almost as many diplomats taking notes at her press conference as journalists.

"I am not mad. I am not lying," she insisted when I visited her home in Kabul, last week. "If there is any proof, then I am ready to be hanged. But if the president doesn't want peace, then he should be hanged. If Nato doesn't want peace, General John Allen (the commander] should be hanged."

A former women's rights officer who worked at Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), Ms Sultani does not appear of unsound mind.

She hopped between Dari and English during our hour-long meeting, and said a senior official from the United Nations and a British political officer had visited her home to find out more about her proposals.

But there is little to prove the veracity of her extraordinary story. A letter, which she claims is from Mullah Omar, was inexplicably written in Dari, instead of the Taleban's native Pashtu.

It lacked the grandiose and often colourful letter heading often associated with Taleban stationery. Ms Sultani is a woman, and is also from Afghanistan's Hazara minority, who were persecuted by the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taleban.

She had originally claimed that Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taleban leader, had been staying in her home. "When I said Mullah Omar was living in my home, it doesn't mean he is living here," she said by way of clarification. "It means my access to him is as easy as to my family. It means the house where he is living is like my family house."

Afghan officials and western diplomats are overwhelmingly sceptical.

Nader Naderi, an AIHRC commissioner, said Ms Sultani left the organisation in 2009 because her work wasn't up to standard and then entered politics. "She can't present any precise proof that (the meetings took place]," he said. "I don't know why she is making these claims. It looks strange to me."

Mullah Omar, usually thought to reside in Quetta in Pakistan, is in fact within 150 miles of Kabul, Ms Sultani insisted, where she visited him again as recently as last month. He's ready to announce a peace process as soon as President Karzai guarantees he won't be bombed, killed or whisked off to Guantanamo by the Americans.

Towards the end of our meeting, Ms Sultani walked into the adjacent room where Haji Abdul Basir was dozing.

A fellow MP, she said Mr Basir was present at both her meetings with Mullah Omar.

"Everyone knows everyone in Afghanistan," he said, explaining how he had made contact with the insurgents' high command.

"If the international community doesn't take this opportunity they will be trapped in this country and never escape." It is that lingering fear, perhaps, which has stopped diplomats ruling out the story completely.

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