KABUL – Rahmatullah Andar was once a feared Taliban commander who was embroiled in bloody skirmishes against American and Afghan government forces in the harsh countryside of eastern Afghanistan.
In 2007, he was captured by an American special operations team during a nighttime raid on a house in his ancestral village in Ghazni province. He spent two years in an American-run prison on Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul.
Today Commander Andar is Spokesman Andar – the official spokesman for the National Security Council of the American-backed Afghan government. The story of how a former Talib became a senior government security official is also a chronicle of the endless Afghan war itself: loyalties are shifting. Enemies become allies. Players change roles, but the war continues.
The 19-year-old conflict is as hotly fought today as it was when Mr. Andar commanded Taliban fighters for several years, only to break with the militants and lead one of Afghanistan’s first local uprisings against the Taliban in 2012. He lost his father, 75 years old, his brother, an uncle and two cousins - all killed by the Taliban in revenge, he said.
Today, Mr. Andar is a two Masters degree religious scholar serving a government he once vowed to overthrow. And he remains a target of his former brothers in arms, who see him as a cover.
“The Taliban intend to murder me,” said the 41-year-old Andar during an interview in the complex of the presidential palace in Kabul. “Whether I am a member of the government or not, they will never let me live.”
Alternating between Pashto, Farsi and English, Mr Andar was relaxed and agile as he related a life spent on the battlefields, on the run, at universities and in prisons. He is an accomplished survivor.
He described how he withstood Taliban kidnapping attempts and ambushes, interrogation by American kidnappers, and two stays in Afghan government prisons – reports that emerged from official records and from those who fought alongside him.
With his tangled beard and long hair, he might still be mistaken for a Talib, although he insists he regards the militants with disdain – and hopes to serve as an example that the insurgents do not have a monopoly on Afghan piety .
He was appointed to his position on the National Security Council by President Ashraf Ghani on September 25, due in large part to both his religious qualifications – he has the religious honor of Mawlawi, which means scholar of Islam – and his reputation as a fighter against the Taliban is due.
His appointment was a clear statement from the Afghan government, as a central idea behind the Taliban’s criticism is that the government does not remain sufficiently Islamic and is a puppet of the Americans.
Andar admitted that a single appointment cannot improve the religious image of an entire government. “But the government can show through its actions that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is more than just a name,” he said.
And he said the Taliban had undermined their own claims to Islamic purity by signing a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in February while freezing the Afghan government.
“They say government officials are infidels, but they have an arrangement with the Americans whose troops invaded Afghanistan,” he said. “Now they have no logic for this war” against other Afghans and Muslims.
The Taliban have declared that any new government resulting from negotiations with Afghan officials in Doha, Qatar, must be based on Islamic principles. Some analysts have interpreted this to mean the same strict Sharia law that was imposed when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Mr Andar said the Taliban could not change the Afghan constitution without the approval of a loya jirga, a traditional gathering where matters of national concern are discussed. And Article 3 of the constitution already provides that no law “can contradict the beliefs and rules of the holy religion of Islam,” he said.
Many Afghan women have voiced fears that a return of the Taliban to the government would undo the gains they have made since the militants were overthrown in 2001. The Taliban beat women, confined them to their homes and banned them from going to school.
Mr Andar said these bans are not properly rooted in Islam as the religion does not prohibit girls and women from going to school. In fact, he said, the Taliban’s closure of schools in his home district triggered his separation from the movement three years after his release from American custody.
“The Taliban closed schools and spoke out against reconstruction, kidnapping and killing engineers,” said Amanullah Kamran, a member of the provincial council in Ghazni. He said Mr Andar, who supported women’s education and US-led reconstruction efforts, took up arms against the Taliban and contributed to one of the country’s first local anti-insurgency revolts.
Mr Kamran said the fighting killed nearly 500 Afghans in the district and wounded another 500. Mr Andar himself was wounded in battles that ultimately killed his closest male relatives, he said.
“After all, there was no man in Rahmatullah’s family except Rahmatullah,” said Kamran.
Mr Andar said he is now looking after 21 children and widows. When asked if he still carried an AK-47 rifle from his fighting days, he laughed and said he only had one pistol for personal protection.
In recent months, the Taliban have carried out a number of targeted attacks against government officials and those believed to be supporters of the government. But Mr Andar declared his changing allegiances by blaming both the government and the Taliban. He said he joined the Taliban after the government imprisoned him for two months in 2003 after returning from religious studies in Pakistan.
“The government pushed me to join the Taliban through its actions against me,” he said.
Years later, he said, he turned against the Taliban when militants began closing schools and terrorizing residents in his district – violating Islamic rules. “Even fighting has rules in Islam, and the Taliban broke those religious rules,” he said.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said Mr. Andar and his male relatives are legitimate targets for working with Americans while commanding pro-government militias.
After the Taliban burned down the homes of Mr. Andar and his relatives – set fire to his personal Koran and killed their cattle – Mr. Andar said he fled to Kabul. There he earned a second master’s degree in education management to complement an earlier master’s degree in Islamic studies. He later served as a religious advisor to the National Security Council.
In his current position, Mr. Andar encounters former enemies. Asadullah Khalid, the incumbent defense minister, was governor of Ghazni Province when Mr. Andar was arrested and detained there.
“I see him in meetings now and he tells me he’s my friend. We respect each other, ”said Andar.
The speaker’s work also requires an alliance with American and Afghan military commanders. When asked whether his fighters killed or wounded American and Afghan troops, Mr. Andar shrugged. “It was a war,” he said. “Of course there were victims.”