Ex-Taliban officials change headdress, resume duties

Until the fall of Kabul two months ago, Mullah Al-Haj Khaksar was the Taliban's deputy minister of the interior. He oversaw the police forces, and his job was "to establish peace and security in Kabul as well as other provinces."

Today, he still sits in an office here with windows coated in a whitewash film, so that no one can see inside. He's waiting for a job offer.

"They haven't given me a chance to take a position in the interim government so far, but if they want me to, or if the tribal elders from my province suggest I represent them, then I will participate," says Mullah Khaksar, a rotund man whose desk bears a official-looking nameplate and a framed picture of Ahmad Shah Massood, the assassinated leader of the Northern Alliance, the main group which fought to overthrow the Taliban.

Most senior officials from the former Taliban regime are still on the run or in hiding. Some, cornered in their redoubts, have recently cut surrender deals with provincial warlords in southern Afghanistan, and been set free, possibly opening the way for escape into Pakistan and Iran.

Still others are, like Mullah Khaksar, trying to remake their image to fit in with Kabul's new zeitgeist. They say they were trying to fight the system from within, that they had no choice but to work for the previous government - and that they never really liked the Taliban anyway.

Besides Khaksar, there are dozens of mid-level officials in the Taliban regime who are now getting on with their lives virtually unhindered and unchanged - save a switch of headdress and a slight trim of the beard. From mullahs who gave fiery anti-Western sermons in mosques to bureaucrats who ran government ministries, many former Taliban officials are sitting in the same government positions they held when Mullah Mohammad Omar was still in charge.

Many Afghans don't see any contradiction in this recycling of players from one regime to the next, regardless of how radically different each might be. On the contrary, many here defend this as a natural chain of events - one that mirrors the phenomenon in which fighters here have often changed sides in the war when they come to a realization that they are on the losing end of the battle. These remarkable reincarnations, writ large, help tell part of the story of why it is becoming so difficult to track down the senior Taliban and Al Qaeda members.

Take Said Marajuddin Nazari, who was in charge of oil imports for the Taliban's department of transportation. His was an important job in a region where oil is a key commodity - and where a supply of fuel was crucial to feeding the Taliban's war machine, which eventually gained control of 90 percent of Afghanistan.

Today, Mr. Nazari has traded in his large turban for a pokhol, the wool hat with rolled-up sides emblematic of the Northern Alliance. Though his neighbors say that he once seemed perfectly content to walk the walk and talk the talk of the Taliban, Nazari says he grew disappointed in the regime because they refused to hire qualified people and kept his daughters home from school.

"I had to work to support my family," says Nazari, a father of seven girls.

"No one wants to say now that they liked the Taliban or wanted to work with them," he says. But despite that, he says that most people accept that he held an important job in their regime - and that he has kept the same job in the interim government. He also worked for the government run by the mujahideen, who repelled the Soviet invasion.

"Maybe five percent of people here would say accusingly, 'You were working for the Taliban,' as though there were something wrong with it," he says.

"The Taliban did bring security to Afghanistan," he says. "There was no robbery on the roads. But we lost other things like education, and no one could speak freely on the street."

Mullah Khaksar, the former deputy interior minister says he, for one, clashed on many occasions with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader and with Osama bin Laden. He says he tried to get Omar to bring various regional powerbrokers into the government, rather than limit it to ethnic Pashtuns like them, and to have regional councils.

"He got angry at me and told me that I'm against his policy and against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," recalls Khaksar.

Khaksar says he has no reason to think he could face problems from the new government, which has pledged to bring senior Taliban leaders to justice.

Those who stayed here in Kabul, he says, showed which side they were on - now.

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