In September 2010 Afghan President Hamid Karzai named Maulvi Qalamuddin to the High Peace Council, an Afghan organization set up to negotiate with the Taliban-led insurgency. Qalamuddin has a notorious past as the former deputy minister for the General Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice (Amr-e-Bil M'arouf wa Nahi Anil Munkar) during the Taliban regime. He oversaw the implementation of the extreme and strict Islamic laws through religious police squads who ran surveillance on the Afghan populace. Activities included public beatings of women who were deemed to be dressed or behaving inappropriately, banning women from working in public space, smashing televisions, and forcing men to grow beards and spend more time in mosques.
Maulvi Qalamuddin is among the most controversial of the five Taliban members who have been appointed to the HPC as part of the Afghan government's efforts to include more hardliners into the peace process. He is considered to be among the few of Taliban members who still have significant clout and connections among insurgents, including the Taliban leadership. Qalamuddin is a product of the Dar-ul Uloom Haqqania madrassa in the town of Akora Khattak, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, the same madrassa that produced Mullah Omar and other Taliban ministers and commanders, including Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network and one of the most dreaded insurgent leaders in Afghanistan. In an effort to build trust with insurgent leaders, Afghan government has petitioned the U.N. Security Council to remove Qalamuddin and 19 other former Taliban members from a sanctions list that has prevented them from travelling or sending money abroad since 1999.
As the rush towards withdrawal gathers momentum, and the search for political solution intensifies, the urge to portray a moderate face of the Taliban is gaining traction. While those who have joined the peace process appear to have moderated their views, the key question of whether there has been a genuine change of heart or whether nominal moderation represents mere opportunism remains unanswered.
Afghans who have been fatigued by the unending war and uncertainty of the international presence are broadly supportive of the peace and reintegration processes, but they, too, remain sceptical about the motives and intent of the former Taliban leaders who are eyeing a return through political negotiations. Concerns remain over how the Taliban might behave once they are allowed into some kind of power sharing arrangement. Moreover, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, remains elusive, with little or no real indication of his thoughts on the peace processes.
Through my discussions with the members of the High Peace Council, as well as the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP), it was interesting to observe the various strands of thinking on reintegration, reconciliation and peace processes. The HPC and APRP members were optimistic about the reintegration process, though they expressed concerns about the reliability of guarantees from the government of protection, compensation and employment opportunities to prevent the militants from re-joining the insurgency. As for the reconciliation and peace process, members lamented the lack of clarity on the role and powers of HPC with the U.S. having set up the parallel Qatar process. Most feel that this should be an Afghan-led negotiation, and any parallel process should be in consultation with the Afghans, and needs to be gradually integrated into the Afghan effort. They perceive the present U.S. effort at negotiation as a face saving formula rather than a serious stake holder in the negotiation process. However, some concede that the Qatar track may also take the heat off of the Afghans to find a political solution, given that the HPC had lost a lot of steam after the assassination of HPC head Burhanuddin Rabbani last year. Concerns remain over the potential spoiler role that could be played by Pakistan, and the belief that the Pakistani establishment has control over the Quetta Shura or at least continue to provide sanctuary to Taliban militants.
During a conversation with Maulvi Qalamuddin in Kabul, I had a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into his personal views on the various issues that have confounded the Afghans and the international community, and threatened the viability of the peace process. He paints a very optimistic picture of the prospects of reintegration and reconciliation, though he remains wary of the role of the United States and neighbouring countries.
Below are Maulvi Qalamuddin's responses to my questions.
Shanthie D'Souza: Why do you think peace and reconciliation is important? Do you think the Afghan government can bring peace?
Maulvi Qalamuddin: Reconciliation and peace are important to bring an end to the war. The people of Afgahnistan are tired of war and violence and want peace. So it is important to work with the government to bring peace. The Afghan government by working through the provincial offices of the High Peace Council has been able to reach out to large segment of tribal elders that has helped gain grass root support.
SD: Why didn't you support or join the government earlier?
MQ: By direct political negotiations, there were many like Maulvi Qalamuddin who were ready to join the government but were arrested in 2002. There were many like him who wanted to join the government earlier but were captured or killed. This created a trust deficit.
SD: Why did you join the Taliban and why are you supporting the Afghan government now?
MQ: The rationale for joining the Taliban was to put an end to the conflict caused by the incessant infighting among the mujahideen in the 1990's. The Taliban were the only ones who were able to being security and justice to Afghanistan. Likewise, my present decision to join the government is to help bring peace to the country. Eleven years of war has worked to no one's advantage. I will support any government that has and serves the interest of the Afghan people.
SD: Was the Taliban regime better or more effective than the present government?
MQ: The Taliban regime was good because there was a security, justice in Afghanistan and it was a pure Islamic state. The present Afghan government is good because it has money, professional cadre and international support. In the time of the Taliban, one could not visualise offices with young people working on computers that one sees today. That is a good sign. I have three television sets at home and I watch Televison programs[The Taliban during its rule and under Qalamuddin's direction had carried out public executions of TV sets as it was considered as ‘idolatry']. For a man averse to photography, he was open to being photographed.
SD: Are the Taliban ready for talks? Who should be included in the talks and negotiations?
MQ: Taliban has shown inclination for talks. Not all Taliban are useful and they do not depict the Afghan culture. The present excesses of the Taliban like beheadings and suicide bombing are unacceptable. There is a need to separate the criminalised networks from the real Taliban.
SD: What are the challenges to the reconciliation process?
MQ: The presence of criminal groups who function under the name of Taliban are a main challenge. There are also issues of night raids [by the international forces], torture, detention centres, black listing of Taliban member and role of neighbouring countries. More importantly, there is lack of trust and confidence between the government, international community and the Taliban
SD: How do you think these challenges can be addressed?
MQ: For reconciliation to work there is a need for change in the constitution, provide guarantees, build trust and international community's support.
SD: What do you think of the Qatar Process? Do you think it will help establish contact and official address for the Taliban?
MQ: The Qatar process is an informal dialogue and not an official channel. Thus, it has its limitations. Taliban had only a presence in Qatar, not an office. This window has opened on to a path that might lead eventually to peace negotiations. [His emphasis was on the Afghan process].
SD: What should be done after 2014 in case of international withdrawal?
MQ: There is a need to work together with the Afghan government and the international community.
SD: If the Taliban were to come back to power in some form, would women's rights be protected?
MQ: The west does not understand the Afghan society. I am not against women working in offices or going out in public alone. Look, you are a foreigner. If you can cover your head and respect our culture, we appreciate and expect the same from Afghan women. The present breed of Afghan women appearing on TV without head scarves is not acceptable. Women need to adhere to the sharia laws in consonance with the Afghan culture.
When I asked other HPC officials about women's rights, they were adamant that the respect and protection of women rights would not be compromised by reconciliation with the Taliban. Based on my own observations in Afghanistan, there appears to have been a marginal (or tactical) shift in letting women in public space, but not letting them dress the way they want to, for example . While most Afghan women would like to wear the traditional attire or cover their head, there are others who believe they should have the freedom to make that choice themselves. Interestingly, Qalamuddin let me photograph him, but declined to have his picture taken with me, presumably because I am a woman. I perceive this as a marginal change, and not a full, attitudinal change.
The Afghan women leaders with whom I have had discussions, such as Fawzia Koofi, Sima Samar, Shukriya Barakzai and others in Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Nangahar, are very apprehensive. They feel that once back in power, the Taliban will resort to old ways. Unless the international community ensures some guarantees on women and human rights, Afghanistan risks reverting to its pre-2001 ways.
Do Qalamuddin's views signify a dramatic shift in thinking among the Taliban? Are these early signs of transformation or tactics of opportunism? It is important for the United States and its allies, who are pushing for hasty deals through multiple negotiation channels, to sieve through these strands of thinking to prepare for eventualities when the Taliban are back in some form in the Afghan society and polity. Obviously, these attempts at peace making and negotiations should not fritter away a decade-long achievements in areas of democracy, human and women rights.
Shanthie Mariet D'Souza is a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), an autonomous institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institute.
Shanthie Mariet D'Souza