As we drove through Kabul on our way to visit a couple who had come to Afghanistan during the Taliban years, my 22-year-old driver Khalil (who like many Afghans doesn't use a surname) sang along with a cassette. • "I don't know how we went without music and everything else," he said, referring to almost six years under the Draconian rule of the Taliban, which had just ended. It was a cold December day in 2001 — about six weeks after the United States invaded Afghanistan because the Taliban had hosted Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida leaders during the preparation and planning of 9/11. With most of the Taliban leaders either arrested or hiding in the tribal territories on the border of Pakistan, Kabul had come to life again. • In the shadow of the snowy Hindu Kush mountains, street merchants sold postcards, chess sets and Bollywood videos — all previously forbidden by the Taliban. But to the chagrin of even the most ardent Taliban haters, pornographic magazines and lace thongs were already appearing among sale items, and young Northern Alliance soldiers were licking their lips at women who dared to show their faces. • "Afghans want freedom," Khalil told me. "But not too much of it." • Khalil's words from more than seven years ago seem eerily prophetic now because the Taliban — a group of extremely religious and repressive Pashtun Muslims — is gaining unexpected ground in Afghanistan in 2009.
Part of the Taliban's headway is no doubt due to the kind of fear caused by the horrific bombings and killings in Kabul on Wednesday. But part is also due to Afghans' weariness over an unpredictable future and a willingness to settle for repressive security over corruption and no security. And a portion of recent acquiescence is due to a growing tolerance of what Gen. David Petraeus calls the "reconcilable Taliban" — those very religious nonviolent people who formerly had strong Taliban links.
Which is to say: On the ground in Afghanistan, life is much more complicated and nuanced than what most Westerners see.
Seven years ago, Khalil was ecstatic that his sister was back in medical school after a five-year ban on girls' education, and he was relieved to have just scraped the Taliban-required black paint off the windows of their home, which kept passersby from glimpsing the women inside.
"We have light once again," he said, "But we also have dread."
His father had been a science teacher, paid by the Taliban government. Now, the family worried they would be labeled extremists and ostracized.
"Everything was not wrong with the Taliban and everything is not right without them," he said.
The Taliban, which means "seekers of Islamic knowledge," took over Afghanistan in 1995, restoring peace to most of the country after years of local ethnic infighting preceded by almost a decade of battling the occupying Russians. Along with order, the Taliban brought in Puritanical-style restrictions that blocked the most basic civil rights of Afghans — especially women. More than four years into the Taliban's six-year control, Mark and Vicki Timlin arrived at the Afghan border from England, hoping to help the most needy, the women of Afghanistan.
It is the Timlins that Khalil and I went to visit on that December day in 2001. And, it is the Timlins I called (in Melbourne, Australia) a few days ago to talk about their five years in Afghanistan during and after the Taliban. I wanted to know how they explained the growing visibility and acceptance of the group.
"Because of their extreme form of religion, the Taliban made getting things done very difficult," said Mark, 36, a medical doctor who ran a charity with his wife. "But despite their misguided missionary zeal, they were not corrupt like the government that replaced them."
On that day in 2001, when Khalil and I arrived at the Timlins' rectangular, concrete-block home, Hamid Karzai, who was beloved at the time, had yet to be sworn in as Afghan president. But already, a mafia-style graft was making headway in the day-to-day lives of Afghans. For the Timlins and others running charities, it meant coming up with bribe money to get supplies and approvals.
"The Taliban was dedicated to a punitive God, which caused problems. But after the Taliban, God became money, which was its own problem," Mark said in a recent phone conversation.
(A recent ABC/BBC poll found that 52 percent of Afghans still support Karzai. But President Obama recently voiced concern that Karzai is "very detached.")
During the Taliban years and after, the Timlins tried to find a way to get their projects — building a women's clinic, a hospital and a rural school — completed. They turned to Afghan Ehsan Ullah to tiptoe through the mine fields and clear the way.
Ehsan, a government official in the Taliban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, helped them get visas to get into the country — a nearly impossible feat in 2000, when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. He also helped them get supplies and local approvals to build.
He recently told me in an e-mail, written in English: "I wanted to help the Timlins because, like me, they were driven to make life better for the needy."
It was Ehsan Ullah who greeted Khalil and me at the door of the Timlins' home over seven years ago. He shook Khalil's hand and bowed in my direction — a signal that he didn't believe in touching women. Ehsan had a four-inch beard and wore the billowy long shirt and head cover required by the Taliban. A month before, when most of the Taliban were run out of town, he lost his job and the Timlins quietly hired him to supervise their projects. He kept a low profile, prayed a lot and got things done.
"Ehsan is religious in the best sense," Vicki told me at the time.
He gave the land for the rural school, which was to be built in his home province of Maidan-Wardak, west of Kabul. He worked with former Taliban townspeople to make sure they welcomed the Timlins and the school. When the Timlins landed a British and U.S. military grant to put in desks, glass windows and a playground, Ehsan worked with the soldiers.
But he put his foot down when they wanted the school to be co-educational.
He explained seven years later in an e-mail: "It is not part of my religion to be hesitant of equality. But I had to honor the cultural customs of the (rural) area which demanded that girls be educated separately."
Translation: "I knew if we pushed too hard for change we'd lose the borderline Taliban people supporting us."
I then wrote him back and asked him his reaction to the current resurgence of Taliban. I mentioned a Reuters report last week that told of an increasing Taliban presence in Maidan-Wardak province, which was being met with an escalation of U.S. troops.
His reply: "You would be so happy to see over a thousand boys and girls in school in Maidan-Wardak. We have added classrooms and asphalted the road. We are now trying to asphalt the road all the way to Bamiyan. But there are attacks on both sides, and it is not easy."
Since Wednesday when the Taliban killed 26 people in Kabul, I have not heard from Ehsan, who works for an international charity there. But before the bombings and shootings he wrote, asking that I not name the charity.
His reason goes to the heart of the difficulties that most Afghans now face: "Though many of us have deserted former allegiances to work together for a better Afghanistan, there are those who seek violence and refuse to be a part of our hope."
Meg Laughlin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8068.