Taliban modernising, says ex anti-vice enforcer

Maulavi Qalamuddin is former chief of the Taliban`s "vice and virtue" squad which whipped women without burqas.

Kabul: Sitting cross-legged on a blood-red Afghan carpet in a house perched on a Kabul hillside, the bearded man gazes out across the sprawling city where he was once one of the most feared men in town.

Now, Maulavi Qalamuddin, former chief of the Taliban`s "vice and virtue" squad which whipped women without burqas and jailed men without beards, lives behind a battered green door set in a mud wall at the top of a narrow track.

The low-slung city that he looks over towards snow-covered mountains is not the same one that he policed with such ferocity from 1996 until the Taliban were overthrown by a US-led invasion after the 9/11 attacks.

Not far from his door women in high-heeled boots and jeans step briskly through the icy streets -- hair covered and curves hidden by coats but provocative enough to have outraged the old Qalamuddin.

And young girls carry schoolbooks, exercising a right to education that was denied them under the Taliban, where a woman`s place was at home or under an all-enveloping light-blue burqa.

Qalamuddin, relaxed in a lavishly carpeted room centred on a wood-burning stove and hung with curtains bearing a striking similarity to burqa blue, says he has changed too.

"The Taliban had a lot of positive achievements, but there were mistakes made," says the heavily-bearded 60-year-old, wearing a traditional loose-fitting shalwar khameez, dark pin-striped waistcoat and grey turban.

With Washington and its NATO allies preparing to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan in 2014, fear of a Taliban return is widespread in Kabul and refugee agencies say increasing numbers of people are fleeing abroad.

Asked whether they are right to be afraid, Qalamuddin contemplates the gently twitching intertwined thumbs in his lap and says no.

"The people should not be afraid at all. There are only a small number of people who are afraid, and those are the ones who don`t like the Islamic laws," he said in an hour-long interview.

Qalamuddin, who was jailed for two years after the Taliban were routed, is now a member of President Hamid Karzai`s government-appointed High Peace Council seeking to end the brutal, decade-long Taliban-led insurgency.

He says the mistakes the Taliban made while in power could be put down to the fact they were either peasants or uneducated former mujahideen fighters during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the subsequent civil war.

"I for instance did not know what a computer was, but now I have almost learned computers," he said, as one of his three sons -- all university students -- served green tea and sweets.

"The tape recorder in front of me -- when first someone placed it in front of me I was afraid of it."

Asked about the small television set standing in a corner like an accusatory ghost from his past, Qalamuddin said television had been banned because the Taliban thought "bad movies were shown on TVs".

Now, he confesses to watching political, social and news programmes "and sometimes entertainments".

Qalamuddin says that since the collapse of the Taliban government, under the onslaught of a US military thirsting for vengeance over al Qaeda`s airborne attacks on New York and Washington, he has had no official links with them.

He does, however, "see them" sometimes when he goes to his home province of Logar, south of Kabul, and he believes the Taliban generally share his new acceptance that not all things modern are evil.

"Now everything has changed. I can say their attitude has changed 80 percent toward everything."

The fundamentalist Taliban government was recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the extent to which the movement is reforming has become a key question this year.

The Taliban, led by US arch-enemy Mullah Omar and accused of sheltering al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during the 9/11 attacks, are setting up a political office in Qatar ahead of possible talks with Washington.

Combined with NATO`s promised pullout of combat troops, the possibility of a new role for the Taliban in government is making Kabul jittery.

A NATO report leaked this week said "many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban".

"Once (NATO force) ISAF is no longer a factor, Taliban consider their victory inevitable."

Part of the militia`s strategy, some reports suggest, is to present a softer image.

The new Qalamuddin`s answer to a question about whether his views on women`s rights have changed carries more than a hint of the past.

"We know human rights better than you guys as we have been told of human rights by God.”

"We do respect the women rights, we know the women rights in an Islamic framework," said Qalamuddin, who also has two daughters, who are "at home". As for the beardless men on Kabul`s streets -- by far the majority -- they are all sinners, he says. "A beard is mandatory in Islam, all prophets including Christ had beards. Those who don`t grow beards are sinners."

Down the muddy track outside his home, past bazaars full of mobile phones, DVDs and other signs of modernity, is the Ghazi stadium, notorious in Qalamuddin`s heyday for the public execution of those considered serious sinners. Now it is used for football and other sports.

And if he wishes, the new Qalamuddin can watch the games on the TV set in the corner of the room with the strangely blue burqa curtains, as he and the rest of Kabul await the next episode in Afghanistan`s war-ravaged history.