KABUL — He was one of the most feared figures of the Taliban government: a scowling cleric whose Islamic vigilante squads roamed the capital, shoving stragglers toward mosques at prayer time, dragging men off to jail for listening to radios and beating women they caught chatting with shopkeepers.
At 60, Maulvi Qalamuddin still wears the thick black beard and imposing turban that defined him during his tenure as deputy minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice. But his rhetoric has mellowed since Taliban rule ended in 2001, and last year he was named by President Hamid Karzai, along with five other former Taliban officials, to the High Peace Council set up to negotiate with the insurgency.
Now the Karzai government, in a further bid to bolster the fledgling peace process, has asked the U.N. Security Council to remove Qalamuddin and 19 other former Taliban members from a sanctions list that has prevented them from traveling or sending money abroad since 1999. The United Nations is expected to announce a decision within weeks.
“All human beings need peace, even if they were once enemies,” the former minister said during an interview this week, pouring tea for visitors at his modest home in the capital. He criticized the revived Taliban forces for “un-Islamic” actions such as suicide bombings yet said he fully supported Karzai’s plan to welcome all but their most violent leaders into a future government.
Qalamuddin’s rehabilitation has been neither swift nor smooth. He is more controversial than the handful of other ex-Taliban officials to whom the Afghan administration has reached out, including former U.N. envoy Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, former ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef and former foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil.
His presence on the peace panel appears mainly to illustrate the government’s eagerness to reach a deal; he still enjoys a following among Taliban hard-liners that the more moderate former officials do not.
Several months after the Taliban was ousted in late 2001, Qalamuddin was arrested in his native Logar province. He spent two years in prison. Prosecutors attempted to put him on trial, but they reportedly were not able to gather enough evidence, and he was eventually released.
Even today, Qalamuddin is defiantly unrepentant about the punishments he and his squads of religious police meted out to thousands of Afghans between 1996 and 2001. The punishments were often for infractions such as women forgetting to wear socks or men failing grow long beards.
“We carried out our duties under the laws of the government and according to sharia,” he said. “What I did, I do not regret at all. If some people say it was cruel, I object. It was like night and day compared to the new generation of Taliban. They are blowing up their fellow Muslims and cutting off their heads.”
Whatever the justification, the actions of Qalamuddin’s ministry sowed terror in a populace already traumatized by over a decade of armed conflict. Many adults in Kabul can recount at least one harrowing brush with the Virtue and Vice Police during the five years of Taliban rule.
Mohammed Tutakhel, then 18, said he was working as a tailor when a religious policeman accosted him and discovered his catalogue of women’s fashions. He was taken to jail and beaten by several men, while their boss leafed through the pages, fascinated. For nine days, Tutakhel was forced to memorize the Koran; for nine nights, he was crammed in a room with 150 other prisoners and no toilet.
“There were some who could not grow beards, some who were caught with cassettes. One taxi driver was arrested because he had women passengers. Everyone was scared,” recalled Tutakhel, 33, who runs a computer academy. “The Taliban did bring security, but they were too cruel to the people.”
There has been virtually no public opposition to the appointments of Qalamuddin and other former Taliban officials to the peace council. In contrast, many Afghans bitterly opposed the inclusion of leaders from rival militias, seen as responsible for the vicious civil war that destroyed the capital in the early 1990s.
Soraya Parlika, a women’s rights activist in Kabul, ran secret academic classes for girls during the Taliban era, hiding their books in her home so the religious police would not catch them. Yet she also says their oppressive rule was a welcome relief from wartime mayhem.
“The Taliban were strict, but under them there were no rockets, no robbery and no rapes,” Parlika said. “When we first heard they were coming, we were all so happy and excited. It wasn’t until later that they became more repressive and misinterpreted Islam as a religion of violence.”
Similarly, there has been little domestic controversy about the government request to lift U.N. sanctions against the larger group of ex-Taliban, which Afghan officials hope will induce more insurgents to join the peace process. U.S. officials support the move and backed a successful effort last week to split Taliban names from al-Qaeda names on the sanctions list.
Even Qalamuddin, whose name was once synonymous with the punitive excesses of the Taliban, aroused surprisingly little public wrath when the government attempted to solicit victims’ testimony for his trial in 2004.
“I thought at least a thousand people would register, but to my amazement, nobody did,” recalled Waheed Mojda, a former Foreign Ministry aide under the Taliban. “Qalamuddin punished a lot of people, but he did it according to Islamic law, so they didn’t want to complain.”
Some Afghans support lifting the U.N. sanctions but remain skeptical about the motives of the former Taliban figures. One peace council member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he found it hard to believe that a hard-line cleric such as Qalamuddin would now endorse the Western-backed Karzai administration.
“There is a lot of opportunism here,” he said.
But the former Islamic enforcer is playing his new role well. As a Taliban minister, he aggressively implemented a ban on human images as idolatrous and never allowed himself to be photographed. This week, after initially demurring, Qalamuddin carefully adjusted his turban and sat to have his picture taken.