Gone is the turban and beard he wore earlier this year when he was spying on his former employer, the Taliban. Mohammad Tahir now has a slick new haircut and a mobile phone. But he still worries that he is living on borrowed time.
"When I was home this month in my province, the Taliban sent me word that if they catch me, they will kill me for being a turncoat," he says.
The young Afghan's odyssey from his post as a senior official for one of the world's most reviled regimes, to a three-month stint as a spy for US Special Forces, to his current job with USA Today is more than a curious tale of betrayal. It's a telling example of how "enemies" in Afghanistan can become US allies and friends.
Mr. Tahir formed his ties to the Taliban in much the same way many Afghans his age did.
One scorching afternoon in 1984, a Russian helicopter in search of Afghan rebels attacked his family farm in southeastern Zabul Province and fired a missile that killed his brother. The young Afghan was left bitter and opposed to any "infidel aggression" against his homeland.
During the Soviet invasion and occupation, Tahir's family sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan. Tahir was admitted to a top Islamic school in Quetta, where many of his teachers were Arab Muslim missionaries. "They were mostly nice guys, but very anti-American," he says. "They talked a little about Osama bin Laden, and we were told that we should be proud of him for the help he was giving us to fight the infidels."
The family returned to Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power in 1996 and promised to restore stability where feuding warlords had wreaked havoc. Back home, Tahir immediately found work with the Taliban in their foreign ministry, and quickly climbed the ranks to became a respected senior official in Zabul.
But the Taliban's unrelenting enforcement of sharia (Islamic law) and their brutal treatment of women angered Tahir.
So did their contempt for all foreigners. "I kept thinking that they might change their opinion toward the outside world," Tahir says. "I started to realize that they used Islam as a sword to attack their enemies. The day I watched their security officials cut off the hand and foot of a man who had stolen a motorcycle, I finally lost faith in them."
When the US-led invasion last year sent many Taliban officials fleeing from Zabul, Tahir chose to stay on and offer his talents as an interpreter. He quickly found a job in the new governor's office and eventually was assigned to work closely with US Special Operations.
"I had been raised to believe that the 'infidel' Americans were my enemy, but I quickly found out otherwise," he says, recalling long afternoons spent drinking green tea and chatting with Special Operations commanders. They offered him a substantial monthly stipend for any "secret" information he could provide about Taliban and Al Qaeda movements.
"I agreed to work secretly with them as a spy for a little extra cash. I pointed out some of the top Taliban and Al Qaeda officials still living in the province, but they usually managed to slip away before the US soldiers could get to them."
"I was still afraid to tell the Americans everything because I was already being threatened by the Taliban," he says. "Still, the US forces eventually caught up to and captured Mullah Rocketti [named for his prowess with shoulder-fired rockets], a senior commander from the Jalalabad area who was plotting a Taliban comeback in the area." Rocketti is now being held in a secret US detention center, probably in Afghanistan.
Last March, the US Special Forces commanders handed Tahir a satellite phone and told him to call as often as possible with intelligence about new Taliban and Al Qaeda plots. "I called them twice down at their base in Kandahar to tell Col. Roger King about some recent meetings, but, in the end, I decided to sell the phone as I feared the Taliban would capture and kill me if they found me with it."
Last April, Tahir left Zabul, hitching a ride to Kabul with a couple of reporters from the Monitor, and started looking for work as an interpreter for news agencies more challenging than traditional interpreting and safer than spy work. In Kabul, landed a job as an assistant with USA Today. Tom Squiteri, a senior reporter at the newspaper, describes him this way: "He is a hard worker, very persistent, and wants greatly to improve himself. He is a smart guy and works as well as anyone in the kind of cross-cultural environment he is now in."
Tahir's home province, meanwhile, has gradually been slipping back under the Taliban's influence. Television sets, banned under the Taliban, have vanished from the marketplace and a nearby girls' school was recently rocketed by rebellious former officials hiding in the hills. In addition, an intelligence chief, once loyal to the Russians, was assassinated on his way home from the governor's mansion.
Tahir worries that the renewed plotting by the Taliban spells trouble for the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan. He fears that the Americans will one day "face the music, just like the Russians did" and insists that the US military still needs better intelligence on the ground in the southern Pashtun regions.
But Tahir says there is no question of returning as a spy. Working for a newspaper in Kabul is far more lucrative, he admits.
The CIA and Special Forces aren't the only ones suffering from a similar "brain drain" in the remote provinces. Because of decisions by talented young Afghans like Tahir to work with reporters and leave for Kabul, government and economic development offices in rural areas also suffer from a lack of good translators and experienced eyes. For Tahir, there were also a few other practical considerations. Besides, he says of his co-workers at USA Today: "They are a bit more anxious to correct my grammar than the US Special Forces and the CIA were."