By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 14, 2005
KABUL, Afghanistan -- A cartoon flickered on a television set in Abdul Samad Khaksar's living room as he took a drag from a cigarette and considered the merits of Afghanistan's former Taliban government.
"The Taliban are like a medicine for Afghanistan that has expired," said Khaksar, 42, a white-bearded religious scholar who is running in parliamentary elections scheduled for September. "They want people to live like in the time of our Holy Prophet. I am in favor of how he lived, too. But it's impossible to bring that time back. The people of Afghanistan need something new."
It was a surprising assessment from a man who was once a senior official of the Taliban government -- an Islamic group so extreme that it outlawed television. Hundreds of Taliban fighters continue to wage a guerrilla war against the Afghan government nearly four years after the group was ousted.
But Khaksar's candidacy also points to a central paradox of the Taliban insurgency. While the extremist militia is mounting an unprecedented wave of attacks, apparently aimed at sabotaging the elections, several hundred former Taliban members have returned from exile in Pakistan to join a government reconciliation program. A handful of well-known Taliban figures have even decided to run for parliament.
Over the last several months, small groups of Taliban fighters have repeatedly battled U.S. and Afghan forces for hours at a time, and they have staged dozens of attacks and bombings that have killed hundreds of civilians -- aid workers, religious leaders, election workers -- as well as Afghan and U.S. troops.
Yet the militia's resurgence comes as a new government reconciliation program, open to all but senior Taliban militants linked to terrorism or war crimes, is yielding unprecedented results. Several hundred former Taliban members have recently streamed back into Afghanistan from Pakistan after formally renouncing violence, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.
"The response has been tremendous," said a senior Afghan official who oversees the program. "So many of them are fed up and want to come home, as long as they are promised they will be treated well."
Some of those candidates were considered moderates when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan -- including Khaksar, who was deputy minister of interior, and Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, a high-profile foreign minister who spent three years in U.S. custody and then house arrest in Afghanistan after turning himself in.
There are also several Taliban military commanders in the race, including Rais Baghrani of southern Helmand province and Abdul Salaam Rocketi, named for his skill at aiming rockets.
Although none of the candidates and few of the returnees appears to have been active in the recent insurgency, analysts said that their reentry into Afghan society has had an important psychological impact.
"By coming in as Taliban, they've taken a stance in favor of the peace process, which basically cuts off the moral authority of those in armed resistance," said a Western diplomat.
Just as significant, none of the ex-Taliban candidates appears to be advocating the fundamentalist Islamic policies of Taliban rule, which prohibited women from showing their faces in public, closed girls' schools and required men to grow long beards.
"There's absolutely no appetite for a Taliban-style party among mainstream Afghans, and that's a very hopeful sign," said Peter Dimitroff of the National Democratic Institute, which offers training to Afghan candidates. Even traditional rural voters, he said, are "looking for more mainstream conservative choices."
Although some of the former Taliban candidates still boast of the group's success in quashing the lawlessness of the 1990s, all have distanced themselves from the movement's more notorious practices.
Khaksar said he grew disillusioned with the Taliban government within a year of joining it. He described meeting Osama bin Laden at a Taliban commander's house and disagreeing with bin Laden's assertion that Afghanistan should be used to launch a global holy war. The commander, he said, "immediately ordered me to leave the house."
After that incident, Khaksar said he feared he would be killed if he dared criticize the government, let alone try to resign from his position. Even today, he said, he receives death threats, and fears he cannot safely campaign in his native Kandahar province, once a Taliban stronghold.
Other candidates have been more ambiguous in their critiques. Abdul Hakim Mounib, 35, a former Taliban telecommunications official, refused to condemn the militia's laws banning music.
"I myself do not like music," said Mounib, a candidate from Ghazni province. "I like a calm environment." As to whether governments should forcibly prevent people from listening to music, Mounib said, "I don't know . . . this is a question that's really better for the Supreme Court."
One candidate from Kabul province who came through the reconciliation program refuses to admit he belonged to the Taliban at all, even though several former Taliban leaders have described him as a commander who led more than a hundred men from a base here.
"I sent about 10 or 15 men from my village to help with security when the Taliban were going to visit certain areas of Kabul province. That's all," protested the candidate, who uses the single name Deedar, as his silver sport-utility vehicle bumped along a dirt road toward a campaign event in a mud-walled village outside Kabul.
A burly man with a gravelly voice that often rises to a giggle, Deedar, 46, said he had complained to Taliban leaders about the religious police beating women in the street, as well as the scorched-earth campaign against residents of the Shomali plain north of Kabul who opposed Taliban rule.
A campaign aide brought a stack of campaign posters featuring a photograph of "Commander Deedar" and a biography that described his years as a fighter against the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. There was no mention of his activities under the Taliban.
The subject also never came up at the campaign meeting, a gathering of about 100 men from local villages who crowded on red carpets in a mosque to hear Deedar and other speakers rail against communists, praise President Hamid Karzai and complain about the lack of water and power in the region.
The next day, comments made by several villagers suggested Deedar had reason to be cautious.
"I don't know anything about what Deedar did under the Taliban," said Ahmad Shah, 62, a government technician. "But if we know someone was a Talib, even if they were the best of Talibs, we wouldn't vote for them. They stopped the schools, they didn't let our women out of the house and they told us to just pray five times a day. How could we support our families by just praying?"
Mohammed Yasin, 42, who complained that a Taliban fighter had severely beaten him for making an innocent joke, was more forgiving of Deedar's purported affiliation.
"Yes, I know he was a Taliban commander. But he didn't do anything bad to us then. He was a good person," said Yasin, a farmer. "Belonging to the Taliban isn't what matters. I just look at the personality of the candidate and how he behaved."