A more moderate Taliban on the rise?
Maulvi Qalamuddin, the cleric who oversaw the religious police squads which roamed Afghan streets beating women, smashing televisions and herding men into mosques, says a more moderate Taliban is emerging as its leaders look to the future and eye a political return through nascent peace talks.
Kabul: From a simple mud-walled house above a steep Kabul hillside buried deep in snow, the Taliban's former guardian of virtue and once-feared scourge of vice sees a revolution under way.
Maulvi Qalamuddin, the bearded cleric who oversaw the religious police squads which roamed Afghan streets beating women, smashing televisions and herding men into mosques, says a more moderate Taliban is emerging as its leaders look to the future and eye a political return through nascent peace talks.
"Now it is much different, as different as the grass is to the sky," Qalamuddin told Reuters in his small study, lined in Islamic texts, crimson carpets and lace curtains the same sky blue as the head-to-toe burkhas worn by many Afghan women.
With his blue silk turban and heavy, black-framed glasses, Qalamuddin is as imposing as when first appointed deputy minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice by the Taliban's leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, during the Islamist group's brutal rule for Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
But he claims to have softened in the intervening years and since being appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to a peace council liaising with insurgents on a reconciliation process its backers hope can end Afghanistan's increasingly unpopular war which has just entered its eleventh year.
"The Taliban were defenders of Islam and true Muslims, and we introduced a pure Islamic system. I believe the Taliban will never regret that. But individuals made mistakes," he said, making an oblique reference to his own tattered record.
"There were many political mistakes by the Taliban government, plus administrative problems. It's much different now, because now I know how to deal with it."
Qalamuddin is the most controversial of five former Taliban members appointed by Karzai in 2010 to the high peace council, having been jailed for 18 months after his arrest in late 2001. Attempts to bring him to trial for human rights abuses against both men and women failed due to lack of evidence.
He said he was no longer a guiding member of the Taliban, fighting the 130,000-strong NATO troop presence in the country, as well as Afghan government police and soldiers.
But his standing with insurgents is strong enough that, unlike many in the 70-member peace council, his home atop a steep, icy track is unguarded and in a part of Kabul notorious for kidnappings and under the influence of the Hizb-i-Islami insurgent movement of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
His son, Abdul Malek, was killed three years ago when he was with insurgent friends during a night raid in Qalamuddin's home province of Logar, near the mountainous Pakistan border.
No cameras please:
"I am not a government servant. But I strive for the peace process and I am ready to sacrifice myself for Afghanistan," Qalamuddin said in his deep voice.
While his religious police used to hang televisions and video tape from trees, Qalamuddin's aversion seems to have vanished with a small TV in his study corner. But he will still not allow media photographers or television crews to film him.
Karzai said last week the Afghan government had made some contacts with the Taliban, who have made a strong comeback after being toppled in 2001, but there are no signs that full-fledged peace talks will happen anytime soon. However the Islamist group afterwards denied the talks existed.
US diplomats have also been seeking to broaden exploratory talks that began clandestinely in Germany in late 2010 after the Taliban offered to open a representative office in the Gulf emirate of Qatar, prompting demands for inclusion from Kabul.
Qalamuddin said the Taliban had only a presence in Qatar, not an office, and said the window had barely opened on to a path that could lead eventually to peace negotiations.
"When the Taliban say they have not begun talks with the government yet, they are right, because an atmosphere of confidence is not there. As long as there is no confidence, negotiation is impossible," he said.
Large international bounties on Taliban leaders restricting their international travel made reconciliation impossible, along with US refusal so far to transfer five senior Taliban officials jailed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
"Once the confidence is there, the Taliban will definitely talk with the government. They will talk whether it's in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even in Kabul, because there will be trust," Qalamuddin said.
But he added that the Taliban, even if it won access to power through peace talks, would not give way on demands for an Islamic state, albeit a more modern version respecting women's rights.
"Islam has given equal rights to women. They are part of a society, equal to men," he said. "The Taliban want a united, Islamic nation, One group or ethnic party can never rule here alone."
Qalamuddin said when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan it had been in the chaos of a civil war that left 50,000 dead and Kabul in ruins, with the Taliban's brand of repressive politics so repugnant that catastrophic financial sanctions were applied by foreign nations.
In future the movement would be ready to be part of the international community, he said.
"At that time the Taliban came from remote areas to Kabul and had no diplomatic knowledge, and no experience on how to run a country," Qalamuddin said. "The country was naked."
A reminder of that past came in the form of a blaring ring tone from the mobile phone of one of two black-clothed assistants listening in the small study.
It was the Taliban war song.