A flea in the ear for Mullah Omar
From his hilltop headquarters in the center of the southern Afghan town of Musa Qala, former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salaam has a sweeping view over dusty flatlands in northern Helmand province. But Musa Qala is like a ghost town now compared to the bustling center it had been under Taliban control last year.
Just before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) led an offensive in December to wrest Musa Qala from the Taliban, Salaam defected to the side of the central government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai later appointed him as the district chief in Musa Qala.
As a former Taliban commander, he still has a penchant for quoting the Koran - whether he is speaking to journalists, the US ambassador to Kabul, or NATO military officers. But now, he is also lecturing the Taliban leadership on the meaning of the Koran and Islam. "We must ask what is the goal of those who are fighting our government and the people of this country? What do they want?" Salaam says.
Salaam says he decided to support the Kabul government after he became convinced that Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his followers were violating the "orders of God" as revealed in the Koran.
"My brothers," Salaam says, "these were the first five verses of the Koran that were revealed to the Prophet Mohammad at Mount Hira: 'Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created all, has created man from a blood clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, who has taught by the pen, has taught man that which he knew not."
Salaam says those verses led him to question who the Taliban really are after seeing them "taking pens from our children and taking away schools and education".
'Take up the pen'
"If we take action based on the Koran and based on God's orders, God says to take up the pen," Salaam says. "But if the Taliban do not allow us to take up the pen, then I must demand to know what they are inspired by."
Salaam says he knows from his days as a Taliban commander that Mullah Omar still sends orders to militants in the form of audio recordings from a cave where he hides.
But he thinks legitimate Islamic scholars would reject Omar's claims of authority. He says that's because Mullah Omar relinquished his authority before he fled Kandahar in late 2001 - passing his powers on to a commander named Naqibakhond who has since been killed by coalition forces in Afghanistan.
"So Mullah Omar has resigned his authority as emir," Salaam concludes. "Islamic scholars know that an emir who has given his authority away can no longer claim to be an emir. And now, [Omar] is so weak that he is hiding in a cave. He gives his orders on an audio recording. And he orders the killing of teachers and students and the destruction of schools. This is not the Islamic way. And it is not the Islamic way for an emir to resign and then claim that he still has authority as an emir."
The Taliban are not happy about Mullah Salaam's defection and already have tried to kill him. Salaam survived one attempted assassination in January when a suicide bomber managed to injure several of Salaam's bodyguards.
The town of Musa Qala is still struggling in the aftermath of the December offensive. Thousands of residents were forced from their homes by the fighting.
Many of the displaced tell Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Radio Free Afghanistan that they prefer living on the dusty, rural plain outside of the town for now. Fearing fresh fighting between NATO and the Taliban in the spring, they say it is too early to start rebuilding what is left of their community.
Pulling a threatening Taliban letter from his pocket - which was posted anonymously at night on the walls and doors of buildings in Musa Qala - Salaam says he doesn't think last month's attack will be the last against him.
"I have a short night letter in my pocket and you will see that even in this letter, they humiliate the Koran of God," Salaam says. "They posted this on people's homes and signed it at the end. The author doesn't know the Koran. At the beginning, he writes, 'The Great God says in the Koran....' But although they talk about what the Koran says, they don't follow the Koran. I say they should stop deceiving themselves. They should not pervert the Koran like this. They should not sell Islam."
When locals talk about Salaam's defection from the Taliban, they are careful to avoid expressing personal opinions - fearing possible retaliation from both the Taliban and government forces if they support one side or the other.
With Taliban fighters still positioned within two kilometers of Musa Qala, most residents say they hope their town eventually will be firmly behind only one side - rather than being split by loyalties to both the Taliban and the Afghan government. Meanwhile, they also anxiously await the arrival of reconstruction aid promised by NATO forces in Afghanistan.
With so many residents and shop owners still away from Musa Qala, the town's central bazaar stands almost empty. It is a dramatic contrast to the bazaar's appearance under Taliban control last year when it was bustling with activity. And since December, the prices of basic foods already have doubled. Still, under the Taliban, most traders at the bazaar had sold weapons or large bags of heroin and opium.
The government in Kabul has responded to Salaam's earliest request - to deploy hundreds of Afghan police and troops to Musa Qala. Those forces now comprise most of the security guards posted around Salaam's hilltop headquarters. Of some 300 fighters form Salaam's own militia force, only the most trusted are allowed to carry weapons through the checkpoints and into the headquarters.
His 19-year-old son, who still wears the black turban of the Taliban, is Salaam's most trusted companion. He accompanies Salaam to all of his official meetings and even carries his father's mobile telephone.
For his part, the 45-year-old Salaam continues to wear the long, black beard and the turban that he donned during his days as the Taliban regime's governor of nearby Oruzgun province.
That could help him maintain his credentials as an Islamist and tribal leader. And with the government hoping more moderate Taliban will join him and support Kabul, it also gives Mullah Salaam the appearance of being what some Afghans now call "good Taliban" as opposed to "armed Taliban".
Ron Synovitz covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq as well as economic transition and human rights issues. He reported on the US Army's advance from Kuwait to Baghdad as an embedded journalist (March-April 2003). He has a master's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh contributed to this report from Musa Qala in Afghanistan.)
Copyright (c) 2007, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC 20036