Under the Taliban government, Mohammad Qasim Halimi was Afghanistan's chief of protocol. Then, he spent a year in US custody. Now, he works for Afghanistan's current government. Sandra Petersmann spoke with him in Kabul.
Mohammad Qasim Halimi's private office is protected by a barred door with a large padlock. A heavily armed police officer with a flak jacket stands guard in front of it. He is here to protect Halimi from, among others, his old associates. Halimi doesn't deny his past. "Prior to September 11, 2001, I was very happy with the Taliban government," he said. "They were Afghans: We had an Afghan government. Back then no one told us how to govern our country. I was happy in the government."
"Back then" was when Russian troops were driven out of the country by Afghan freedom fighters. After 1989, the uneasy alliances between US- and Saudi-backed mujahedeen factions continued to fray. A bloody civil war ensued. They killed and pillaged, eventually destroying the capital, Kabul. Then, in 1996, the Taliban marched into the city.
The Taliban's arrival put an end to the fratricide among the mujahedeen. The price: absolute rule under Mullah Mohammad Omar and the religious devotees who surrounded him. Their extreme interpretation of the Quran replaced established jurisprudence. Public whippings and executions became a part of everyday life as the country became more isolated.
An Islamic law scholar, Halimi studied Shariah at Cairo's Al-Azhar University. When he returned home in 1998, he began a career in the Taliban's Foreign Ministry, eventually becoming chief of protocol. "I don't deny that I supported the Taliban," Halimi said. "I had a very good time in the Foreign Office. It was really the best time in my life. Back then Afghanistan really needed the Taliban."
"Mullah Omar was a powerful man," Halimi said. "When he said 'no,' it meant 'no.' When he said 'yes,' it meant 'yes.' I cannot say it any differently today than I said it back then: Afghanistan needed Mullah Omar back then - just like it needs Karzai and Ghani today."
Halimi glosses over Mullah Omar's fateful alliance with al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, who had originally come to Afghanistan to fight the Russians. Afterward, he took on the United States and its allies. The Taliban, honoring its old alliance, allowed bin Laden to set up training camps in Afghanistan - and continued to host him after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Halimi was taken prisoner when the Taliban was driven from power in late 2001 and held at Bagram Airfield from January 2002 until January 2003. Upon release, he, like many other Taliban, went to Pakistan. The movement still enjoys great freedom there today.
By the end of 2003, Halimi had returned home and joined the new government. He was given posts in Afghanistan's Justice, Finance and Education ministries under the postwar president, Hamid Karzai, and was later appointed to the government's Peace Council to negotiate with the Taliban.
In 2005, Halimi joined the 3,000-member state-funded National Afghan Ulema Council, the nation's highest religious authority and a key adviser to the president on matters of faith. Halimi is now the body's spokesperson. Over the past several years, the Taliban has killed and injured a number of the council's members.
"To this day I still have friendly relations with the Taliban," Halimi said. "I am talking about old friends - not political contacts. My old friends know me, and I know them. Therefore, I can tell you the Taliban cannot decide what happens on its own these days."
Halimi said he did not know what the Taliban's goals are today, nor why they are killing civilians. He is making the case for peace talks.
Government infighting and official corruption have added to the fragility of Afghanistan's security situation. Halimi said security was beyond his purview, but he was willing to share his thoughts on the so-called Islamic State, which has now established itself in Afghanistan. In Halimi's eyes, IS fighters are "terrorists." That is not a word he uses when speaking of the Taliban.
"All over the world, terrorists are fighting for the goals of their sponsors," Halimi said. "That is also the case in Afghanistan. There are countries, groups and neighbors that support terrorists and our Taliban so that they can fight the Afghan government. I don't think the Taliban is fighting for its own goals, but rather for someone else's."
Not only do the United States and Pakistan have strategic interests in Afghanistan - India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China do, too. Suspected arms deliveries from Russia to the Taliban have been making headlines in Afghanistan for quite some time. And there is no consensus about the country's future. Halimi has accepted this complicated reality. He often travels abroad in an attempt to build bridges, most recently to Germany and Saudi Arabia.
"The best system for Afghanistan would be a true Islamic Republic," Halimi said. "That does not mean that we want to break off ties to the non-Islamic world. We must stay in contact with the whole world, Islamic and non-Islamic. We have to start a new life with the rest of the world - like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, like Saudi Arabia and all the other Islamic countries that cooperate with the world."