Afghans fearful of push to negotiate with Taliban
It was a peaceful afternoon in a rose-fragrant Kabul park set aside for women. But when girls and women strolling its pathways were asked about the Afghan government’s overtures to the Taliban movement, faces that had been alight with pleasure grew tight with apprehension.
“They don’t change — if the Taliban had power, things would be just as they were before, when we could not work, or leave our houses, or even imagine a place like this, where we can walk freely,” said Maryam Hashimi, a 49-year-old office worker who recalled witnessing Taliban beatings of women for infractions such as allowing a glimpse of their ankles to be visible under full-body veils.
As the West and President Hamid Karzai’s government redouble efforts to coax insurgents into peace negotiations, a loose coalition of women’s groups, human rights activists, professionals, Karzai critics and ethnic groups is beginning to coalesce in opposition to such talks.
Most Afghans believe a negotiated settlement is the only way to bring the decade-old conflict to an end. But many also fear the price of any peace, worried that desperation for a deal will result in too many concessions to the militants, potentially paving the way for a return of notoriously repressive elements of Taliban rule.
“The problem is the tools and the method that the Afghan government has chosen for approaching negotiations,” political analyst Sanjar Sohail said. “There are other ways to get a better result.”
Karzai has made hopes of reconciliation with the Taliban the focus of his second term in office. Along with the Obama administration, he says reconciliation can only come if the insurgents meet three conditions: renouncing violence, severing ties with Al Qaeda and promising to respect the Afghan Constitution.
But the demands have come with flowery public appeals to the Taliban, whom Karzai routinely refers to as “dear, disaffected brothers,” leave many Afghans with the uneasy sense he would do almost anything to draw the insurgents into dialogue.
Meanwhile, falling support for the war in the United States has increased the political pressure on the Obama administration to find a way out of a nearly 10-year-old conflict that appears to be without end. In a much-noted shift in policy last February, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the three demands Karzai made were no longer preconditions for beginning talks, but the “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.”
The heightened sense of urgency to engage the Taliban rubs against the country’s volatile ethnic politics. Like Karzai, the militant Islamic movement is almost entirely ethnic Pashtun. Many of those most critical of the move to reconcile are ethnic Tajiks, who make up about 27% of the population. Tajiks rose to prominence in the Northern Alliance, the militia that fought the civil war that ultimately, with American help, toppled the Taliban.
A Taliban campaign to assassinate other ethnic leaders has increased those tensions. Northern Alliance partisans were deeply shaken by the May 28 killing of one of the bloc’s most powerful figures, Gen. Mohammed Daud Daud, an ethnic Tajik who was the northern regional police chief. He died in a brazen Taliban bombing in the northern province of Takhar.
Other Tajik leaders have warned against talks that could lead to compromising the ideals of a pluralist Afghanistan. One of Karzai’s harshest critics is former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, his chief rival in the acrimonious, fraud-riddled 2010 contest for the presidency. Abdullah has been presiding over sometimes-raucous public rallies demanding greater caution in reaching out to the Taliban. Another prominent Tajik figure in the opposition camp is Amrullah Saleh, fired last year by Karzai as intelligence chief after voicing distrust of Pakistan over its dealings with insurgents.
The Obama administration must also balance any desire for reconciliation with the need to ensure it is not seen to be abandoning its commitments to the rights of Afghan women and minorities.
The Taliban movement itself has publicly rejected the idea of peace talks, although there have been some preliminary Western contacts with insurgent figures in recent months. The United States and its allies have been burned in the past by figures purporting to speak for Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. In one highly embarrassing incident, a man transported to Afghanistan by the NATO force for high-level discussions turned out to be an impostor.
Many Afghans are aware of war-weariness among the Western allies, and are acutely worried that a push to wind down the conflict will work to the Taliban’s advantage. A U.S. military drawdown is to begin in July, the Canadians are wrapping up their combat mission, and other members of the coalition have expressed growing qualms about the Afghan mission, particularly in the wake of Bin Laden’s death.
“If the foreign forces leave the country without bringing about a positive change in the security situation, two outcomes can be predicted,” said Ahmad Shah Behzad, a lawmaker from the western province of Herat. “First civil war and regional instability, and secondly the rule of the Taliban.”
Taliban fighters are also exploiting what they see as a crucial weak point in the West’s exit strategy: the competence and fighting ability of Afghan security forces.
The Afghan police and army are scheduled to take the lead in security by the end of 2014, and that transition is to begin next month in seven cities and provinces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those areas have been singled out for a spate of lethal attacks in the weeks leading up to the security transfer, in a campaign apparently meant to sow doubts as to whether Afghan forces can keep those areas safe.
“The Taliban realize that if they enter the negotiations from a strong stance, they can get what they want,” said Fahim Dashty, a journalist and political analyst who edits the Kabul Weekly. “And what they want is to rule.”
In the women’s garden, which was recently refurbished with U.S. aid money, two teenage cousins walking hand-in-hand recalled spending part of their childhoods in exile after their families fled Taliban rule.
“If they came back into power, I think this time we wouldn’t leave,” said 15-year-old Zahra Sadiqi, who was wearing glittery sandals and blue eye shadow.
“Yes, we would have to stay, and find a way to change things,” chimed in her 18-year-old cousin, Shaista, who declined to give her last name. “Because we want be educated, to work. And to walk in the park.”
Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.