Journey from Taliban to democrat

One man builds a future in the new Afghanistan

Before he leaves his village for Kabul, Abdul Hakeem Muneeb is given strict instructions by his constituents.

"The first thing is Islam," they whisper to him. He agrees: "If we follow Islam, all the rest, development and security, will follow naturally."

A delegate to the loya jirga, a grand council that will produce Afghanistan's new constitution, Mr. Muneeb makes an unlikely founding father. A former deputy minister in the ousted Taliban government, he still wears the black turban favored by Taliban leaders. Without it, he says, his head feels naked.

While some Afghans consider him a representative of the past, the Karzai government sees former Taliban like Muneeb as windows into the volatile countryside, where the vast majority of Afghanistan's 21 million citizens live. Making men like Muneeb feel like citizens, with rights and responsibilities, may be a crucial first step in undercutting Taliban support and giving disaffected Pashtun tribesmen an option other than the gun.

"There is a difference between the military commanders who use the name of Taliban, and the educated and religious people, the real Taliban," says Muneeb. "These people are not criminals, but they are concerned that the American forces will mistake them for the criminals who are fighting the government."

From Zormat, the road to Kabul is a three-hour, bone-crunching ordeal. Muneeb is crammed in a public minivan, full of shoppers, businessmen, and whole Pashtun families carrying gifts for relatives in the big city. Outside the window, the arid mountains of Paktia Province slowly give way to the fertile farmlands of Logar, recently planted with winter wheat.

Ever since he left a caravan of supporters - and armed bodyguards - back in the provincial capital of Gardez, Muneeb has felt nervous. He thinks of his wife, two daughters, and infant son in Zormat, who will need the protection of relatives for the next few weeks of the loya jirga. Just three months ago, Taliban fighters attacked Muneeb's home with Kalashnikovs. It was the second such attack in a year.

But there are risks in Kabul too. Militiamen for the Northern Alliance, manning the checkpoints to the city, keep their eyes out for bearded Pashtuns. With the Taliban attacking aid workers, UN officials, and road builders all across the South and Southeast, these northern soldiers don't want to let anyone in who might bring violence to Kabul itself.

Cellphones and Chinese food

In Kabul, he meets his brother Mohebullah - a delegate from Ghazni Province - at the bullet-pocked campus of Kabul Polytechnic, the site of the loya jirga. Like high-school kids on a field trip, they hire a taxi and see the city of Kabul. Muneeb's first stop is an electronic store; he buys himself a mobile phone. Until recently, he never imagined holding one - even when he was the Taliban's deputy minister for telecommunications six years ago. The phone will be quite useful in the days ahead, to make deals, influence other delegates, play the game.

Driving from the Polytechnic campus to the main bazaar at Pul-e Chishti to the government ministries of Shar-e Naw, Muneeb stares wide-eyed at the changes the city has undergone since he left two years ago. Internet cafés in every city block, Chinese, Thai, and Italian restaurants, tens of thousands of cars in a city where bicycles once ruled.

To Muneeb, Kabul is paradise. In Zormat, there is no school, no health clinic, no electricity, no source of jobs except agriculture and nearby brick kilns.

Few government officials or foreign aid workers dare to come to Zormat, Muneeb says. There is good reason for this. The region was the site of the massive six-week long US offensive called Operation Anaconda conducted in the spring of 2002; Taliban elements remain active in Zormat.

Back in October 2001, when American bombs first started taking out Taliban antiaircraft positions - and the occasional Red Cross warehouse - it was to Zormat that Muneeb fled. There he had family, friends, protection. The first thing he did when he arrived in Zormat was to place a call to the BBC in Pakistan and denounce the Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden.

A week later, he helped organize and command a tribal militia, called an arbaki, to protect the city of Gardez against looters. But by mid- November, Muneeb gave the order to retreat. From the hills, they watched the US-backed commander, Badshah Khan Zadran, and his men seize the empty governor's mansion and begin looting the city.

For the next few months, Muneeb laid low. He started a business selling charcoal to the local brick kilns. He and his wife expanded their family, with the birth to a second daughter. In May 2002, six months after the Taliban fell, he made his first return to politics, representing the people of Zormat at the emergency loya jirga. He enthusiastically supported Mr. Karzai as president, whom he remembers as an early backer of the Taliban back in the mid-1990s.

On Sunday morning, Muneeb listens to Karzai's introductory speech with mild amusement, but fervent support.

"The terrorists are the enemy of a better life for Afghanistan," Karzai tells the delegates. "But this nation will never give up. This nation will gain the victory against the terrorists, God willing."

The crowd applauds, and Muneeb joins them enthusiastically.

In the pocket of his sport coat, Muneeb carries a copy of the draft constitution - a 160-article document compiled by a handpicked team of intellectuals, religious scholars, and legal experts. He approves of most of the provisions, but he has qualms about issues of justice. The decision to forgive or punish a murderer, for instance, should belong to the victim's family - as it was during the Prophet's time - and not to the president, he says.

But there will be plenty of time for substance. First comes the symbolism. The former King Zahir Shah gives a short speech urging unity. A blind cleric chants verses from the Koran. Then a group of kindergarten students, dressed in various ethnic garbs, sing songs of Afghan unity.

"This is our great land,

this is our beautiful land,

this land is our life,

this is our Afghanistan."

The nationalist messages are not subtle, and they carry a powerful effect. On a large video screen at the front of the tent, a delegate wipes her eyes with a handkerchief. Muneeb also wipes his eyes. Afghanistan was beautiful once,he recalls, before drought and war and bombs turned the mountains around Kabul to dust.

Muneeb thinks of his children back in Zormat. His oldest daughter is 3; his youngest son is 2 months old. Will they have a school in Zormat? Will they grow up thinking of themselves as Afghans or as Pashtuns? Everything starts here.

Throughout his time as a Taliban official, Muneeb saw himself as a moderate among hard-liners. While commanders pressed for stricter rules on the lives of Afghanistan's urban population, Muneeb looked for ways to retain the true spirit of Islam. Taliban rules - unlike the Koran - specifically forbade women from attending school, for instance, but Muneeb and his moderate colleagues quietly arranged to keep a medical institute open for young women throughout the five-year Taliban regime.

A child's song drowned out

But while the loya jirga organizers have worked hard on creating a spirit of unity, it's difficult to undo decades of animosity and suspicion. Within minutes of the children's song, an argument breaks out over procedures. Farsi-speaking candidates from religious parties complain that the system chosen by Karzai is unfair. Muneeb springs to his feet. He is the first speaker to back Karzai's voting system.

"At the last loya jirga, Karzai was elected president, so he has the authority to choose the system he wants," Muneeb says in Pashto. "We all have a big responsibility, to adopt a constitution and to act in accordance with Islam. We must not be distracted from our main task."

Scattered applause, surprised murmurs. In a few minutes, the debate is closed. Karzai's voting procedures are approved. Muneeb and other Karzai supporters are delighted, but they now know that this will be the tone for the rest of the loya jirga. There will be no easy victories.

The next day, Monday, Muneeb rises at 5:15 a.m., to perform his ablutions. He scrubs his hands, forearms, feet, face, teeth, beard, nostrils, ears, to make himself fit for an audience with Allah. Today will be his test. He plans to run for deputy chairman of loya jirga. He predicts that many delegates from Pasthun-dominated provinces will vote with him.

Inside the tent, Muneeb's candidacy causes a buzz. His cellphone rings constantly. "Are you really going to run?" people ask. One friend, Mirwaiz Yaseni, a member of Karzai's national security council, asks Muneeb to bow out. The two men met the night before to strike a deal.

"I can't tell you not to run, but it would certainly be appreciated if you threw your support behind me," Mr. Yasini said.

"It's important for me to at least put my name forward, for my constituents," Muneeb replied, "but I don't want to take votes away from you. After all, you and I are both Pashtuns. We must stay together."

A player once more

Before the morning's vote, another Afghan child is invited to sing a song in Farsi: "We are doves, waiting for the peace, we are tired of the fighting." The song is well-sung, but the delegates applaud before the song is finished. The child is too polite to continue: "Thank you very much for paying attention to me," she says, and leaves the stage.

In the crowd of 20 candidates, Muneeb is preparing his own polite departure. He waits just long enough for his name to be announced, and then submits his resignation for candidacy. Splitting the vote 20 ways would definitely risk everything. Mirwaiz is the stronger candidate, he tells himself, the man who has Karzai's ear. Muneeb returns to his seat and the announcement of his resignation is read out.

What he gets in return for this sacrifice is not clear: development funds for Zormat, government jobs for Zormat citizens. But Muneeb knows this is how allegiances are created, the reward will come later.

The TV cameras turn to Muneeb, briefly. He is smiling. After two years of seclusion, Muneeb the former Talib is a player once more.

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