From Jihad to Thoughts of Studying Computers
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
The New York Times
UETTA, Pakistan, Nov. 27 - At least on the outside, Mullah Amirjan Selabe had already begun to reinvent himself. After slipping across the border out of Afghanistan, he unfurled the Taliban's telltale black turban, replacing it with a gray one with white stripes.
He commanded 30 Taliban soldiers in a neighborhood of Kabul before leaving a month ago. But nowadays, sitting unarmed in an Afghan drugstore here in this city near the border, he carried only a single pen in his shirt pocket.
Meeting a woman photographer for the first time, Mullah Selabe, 30, even stretched out his hand to shake hers, a surprising gesture in a region where men and women do not touch in public, much less a Taliban man and a foreign woman.
"I want to change my character in Pakistan," Mullah Selabe offered as an explanation. "I want to learn English," he added, explaining one of his immediate goals. "And in the future I want to learn computers."
He is one of countless Taliban soldiers or commanders who have disappeared by melding themselves into Afghan communities in Pakistan. Crossing porous borders, most are believed to have settled in areas populated by fellow members of the Pashtun ethnic group, who regard them as kin rather than fugitives.
As the arrival of United States marines near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar opened a new front this week in southern Afghanistan, more Taliban are expected to follow the example of Mullah Selabe.
Embittered by their sudden loss of power to the United States and its Afghan proxies, many of them are transforming their appearance to survive, but not necessarily renouncing their beliefs.
The presence of these former Taliban in Pakistan raises doubts about the future of any national government in Kabul, especially since neither the Taliban nor prominent Pashtuns are represented at the United Nations-sponsored talks on an interim administration.
Mullah Selabe joined the Taliban in 1996, inspired by a burning desire to see unity and order after nearly two decades of anarchy and chaos.
"Why I cooperated with the Taliban was for the unity of Afghanistan, for the future of Afghanistan," he said. "But when I saw there was no unity, I did not want to help them."
He is waiting, he said, to see what kind of government will take over in Kabul. If it represents the interests of all Afghans, he said, he will return to Kabul. If it does not, he is unsure what he will do.
The son of a mullah, he was educated in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where his family had fled during the war with the Soviet Union. He studied Pashtun literature at a university, intending to write for an Islamic newspaper.
But before finishing his studies, he joined the Taliban and eventually became the commander of 30 soldiers in Dewan Bigi, in Kabul.
He did not share the Taliban leaders' suspicions of Western education, their belief that only religious education mattered.
The Taliban were worried, he said, that people "would see luxury things on the Internet, or that men would form relations with some girls."
But he could never imagine opposing the Taliban, whose unbending interpretation of Islam was rooted in conservative Pashtun rural life. The head-to-toe burkas that came to symbolize Taliban rule in the West may have been new to Kabul, but it was the traditional way of dress in the countryside. For Mullah Selabe, the Taliban were the defenders of traditional culture and Islam.
Things changed quickly in the last two months. As the Washington- backed Northern Alliance advanced on Kabul, its officials were urging Mullah Selabe and other Taliban commanders to defect. Offers of money were transmitted over walkie-talkies.
"Islam does not allow us to take money," he would respond.
After the fall of Kabul, he fled with 10 other Taliban into Pakistan. Others headed toward Kandahar.
Here in Quetta he has been living in a small room, relying on help from people from his home province. He is worried about his wife and five children, who remain in his home village. He mentioned again his desire to study English and computers.
Asked about his thoughts on the United States, he offered, like many people in the world's poor corners, a conflicted view. He hates America, he said, for what he perceives as its bias against Muslims and for its bombing of Afghanistan, which has killed civilians.
But on the list of countries he would like to visit, he said, America ranks first.
He would go, he said, "just to gain knowledge, to get an education, to support Islam."
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