He fought the Soviets alongside Osama Bin Laden and was running Afghanistan before the Taliban took control. Now living in the borough, former acting Afghani prime minister Ahmadshah Ahmadzai speaks exclusively to LEIGH COLLINS over lunch

Looking around the room, I realised I was the only one of seven lunch guests who was not in the Afghan government when the Taliban seized power.

My host, Ahmadshah Ahmadzai, sitting next to me and imploring me to take more spoonfuls of lamb, was the country's acting prime minister from June 1994 to June 1996.

He was then the minister for education until the Taliban took power in September 1996. The lunch guest on the other side of me, a former Mujahedeen field commander.

While listening to Bbc World Service news broadcasts in Pashto, Mr Ahmadzai accepted responsibility for his part in the Taliban's rise to power.

“We have to admit it was our shortcoming," he said. “We couldn't convince each other to make one government. Unfortunately some of the party leaders did not participate with us and they started fighting.

“Then, unfortunately, the Taliban were provoked against our government by Pakistan.

“Even the Americans helped them to come to power."

Mr Ahmadzai, 57, a former civil engineer who says he was once one of the richest men in Kabul, fled Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban came to power. After successfully claiming political asylum, he has lived at a secret address in Finchley since June last year.

Openly critical of the hardline Taliban regime, Mr Ahmadzai described the September 11 terrorist attacks on America as a "criminal action" but remains unconvinced Osama Bin Laden was behind them. "From the time of jihad, Bin Laden was a very quiet and simple person," he recalled.

"I don't know him for the last 12 years. No-one can imagine he is capable of doing such things. Since after the jihad finished we don't know him."

He is against American and British bombing of his former country "because all the victims are civilians and innocent people. We have a saying in Afghanistan 'blood cannot clean blood'." However, Mr Ahmadzai would welcome the downfall of the Taliban.

"This is agreed, for all Afghans you can go and take the Taliban government out, everyone will be happy.

"But doing this through such a bombardment is too costly for the Americans and Afghans every flight costs them millions, Afghans are losing their lives. "They have the right to revenge if they have the proof.

“We agree that those that committed this should pay, but not through killing and not through destruction."

The lunch, part-social and part-political, on Thursday25/10 last week, brought together Mr Ahmadzai's former government colleagues from their places of exile as far away as Norway, Turkey, Holland and Neasden.

They were meeting before a conference The Council for Peace and National Unity of Afghanistan at a London hotel over the weekend.

More than 100 former friends and foes met to discuss the future rule of their homeland once the Taliban are ousted.

"There are very many groups in the Taliban. Some of them have their own descriptions [of the Koran], they are narrow minded people," Mr Ahmadzai said.

“Some of them have a very good mind about the new situation in the world but many of them, especially in high level, do not."

Mr Ahmadzai and his colleagues in exile all want to return to their country and play a role in the rebuilding.

"We are not with Taliban, nor with the Northern Alliance," he said.

"We want peace in our country. We have a close relationship with both sides because they are our people.

“We have tried to convince them not to fight against each other.

"They are our countrymen we don't want hatred towards our countrymen, we want them to come together and co-operate and live together like brothers.

“You have to have some forgiveness."