Rust-crested skeletons of Russian tanks line the road that snakes through the mountainous Panjshir Valley, 100 km north of Kabul. More lie among the wheat fields, grapevines and tulips that cover almost all of the flat spaces between cliff walls and the silty river rushing between them. The tanks are war trophies and perhaps a warning.
It was here that the Afghan mujahedeen fought the Soviets to a standstill during the 1980s before forcing them from the country, and here also that Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban resistance retreated when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Despite support from Pakistan and Osama bin Laden’s Arab Brigade, the Taliban never subdued the valley. For five years, they were held back here by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military commander known as the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud rejected the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam and the often-murderous ethnic Pashtun supremacism that went with it. He was assassinated by al-Qaeda agents posing as journalists days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and never lived to see his soldiers march back into the Afghan capital two months later.
Today, Massoud lies in a hilltop tomb visited daily by dozens of Afghans from all over the country. The Panjshir Valley remains an anti-Taliban heartland. Insurgents rarely penetrate it—though in some of the villages below its mouth they are said to have spotters who watch for kidnapping opportunities. But many Panjshiris, among other Afghans who opposed the Taliban during its time in power, are angered by developments elsewhere in the country that they see as a betrayal—namely President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to make peace with the Taliban, and concessions they fear he might offer to strike a deal.
The Afghan president has adopted “reintegration and reconciliation” as an official policy. Reintegration involves persuading low-level Taliban fighters to defect, while reconciliation refers to attempts to reach a formal settlement with insurgent leaders. Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, secretary of the High Peace Council, confirmed in April that talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are under way. “We’re in touch. We talk all the time. We’ve sent representatives to their side, and they’ve sent representatives to our side,” he said at a news conference.
Afghanistan’s international allies, including Canada, back the process. “We’re recognizing that a political settlement will be necessary. We’re supporting those efforts,” says Frédéric Maurette, a spokesperson for the Afghanistan Task Force at Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs. The United States and European nations have pledged more than $200 million to support peace efforts, though little of this has actually been spent. American officials from the CIA and State Department have also met at least three times in recent months with Tayeb Agha, once a close aide to fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The Americans are reportedly seeking to contact Mullah Omar directly.
Previous efforts at peace negotiations with the Taliban have floundered. Yet as the war grinds on and NATO member states seek to withdraw their troops, a negotiated political solution appears increasingly attractive. What’s often overlooked is whether Afghans themselves will agree to such a deal. “The Afghan people will never join with a group they fought for so long, that hosted terrorism and stomped on human rights in Afghanistan,” says Abdul Razzaq Malin, who once fought with Massoud and is now a judge in the western Afghan city of Herat. He spoke with Maclean’s at Massoud’s tomb, where he says he comes as often as he can “to remember and to pray for his soul.”
“Wars always end with negotiations,” he says. “There should be negotiations. We’re not opposed to them. But the Taliban are not ready to accept the constitution. They are not willing to accept human rights and Afghanistan as a democratic country.”
A few kilometres downriver, Faheem Dashty, an Afghan journalist and former member of Massoud’s Northern Alliance, sits in the garden of his brother’s home. Two relatives lie buried here. They died in a Soviet bombardment and it was too dangerous to take their bodies to a cemetery. The Russians and Massoud’s forces later signed a ceasefire in the same house. Dashty was with Massoud when al-Qaeda agents detonated a bomb hidden in their television camera. His hands are covered in scar tissue; he says his memory has been affected.
“There are two extremes coming together,” he says, referring to the reconciliation process. “On this side we believe in human rights, women’s rights, freedom, justice, democracy. From that side, they are fundamentally against these values. They believe in an Islamic system, which doesn’t actually have anything to do with the teachings of Islam. If we reconcile, one side has to sacrifice its values, either this side or their side. President Karzai may want to sacrifice his values, but the people of Afghanistan will not accept that. Their side will never sacrifice its values either.”
Dashty points out that while the Taliban may justify its current bloody campaign because of the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, “they were still committing mass killings and war crimes in the 1990s. Our options are either to defeat them, or lose the war. There is no third option.”
ONE THURSDAY last month, more than 10,000 people gathered under colourful tents in the parking lot of a Kabul wedding hall to protest peace talks with the Taliban.
The rally was organized by Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, and once an aide to Massoud. Karzai forced his resignation last year, and since then Saleh has been building the National Movement, a loose political group opposed to deal-making with the Taliban, and to President Karzai himself. He, along with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who ran against Karzai in the 2009 presidential election, are the organization’s most visible faces. Like many of the anti-regime political movements that have recently swept through the Middle East, this one has a large and active online presence.
Saleh is a slim man who looks as if he might be muscular beneath his well-cut suit. He has short, bristly hair and a clean-shaven face. He speaks forcefully and with easy confidence, slicing and stabbing at the air in front of him with his hands. At the rally he attacked Karzai because of the president’s habit of referring to the Taliban as “brothers.” “They are not my brothers. They are not your brothers. They are our enemies,” he told the crowd.
The throng, many waving green flags, shouted back: “Death to the Taliban. Death to suicide bombers. Death to the Punjabis”—a reference to Pakistanis they believe control the Taliban.
“I am not advocating for the continuation of war,” Saleh told Maclean’s a week after the rally. “I am advocating for a dignified end to the conflict, not a deal. We cannot slaughter justice for the sake of achieving a deceptive stability. I’m not saying don’t negotiate. I’m saying, for the sake of negotiations, don’t tear down your fortress. The enemy has besieged your fortress. Don’t tear down the walls to appease the enemy.”
A deal with the Taliban would not lead to real peace, says Saleh. Too many Afghans would reject it. “If I see my dignity no longer defended by the current order, we have to defend it by whatever means we have,” Saleh says. “Currently our only means is civil action. We demonstrated that we can organize civil action. So the government needs to respect this. Respect our voice. Don’t push us to the streets.”
The worst fear of many Afghans is a return to civil war, with the country dividing violently along ethnic lines. The Taliban are mostly Pashtuns from Afghanistan’s south, plus Pakistani recruits. The Northern Alliance drew largely from Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Some opposed to Karzai’s reconciliation efforts say a deal will lead to Pashtun domination. “Pashtuns want this to be a Pashtun country. We are against this,” a National Movement organizer told Maclean’s.
But Saleh claims his movement is a broad one. “What I call the anti-Taliban constituency, it’s not ethnic. It’s not south, north. It’s a constituency that wants justice,” he says. “Without implementing justice, you bow to a group that only knows beheadings, intimidation, suicide bombings, marginalization of society, crushing of civil society. That will not bring stability.”
The result, says Saleh, will instead be a more powerful Taliban ready to do Pakistan’s bidding in Afghanistan. He compares such an outcome to the Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. It functions as a state within a state that bends the central government to its will. Saleh believes the Taliban and Pakistan aspire to the same.
Saleh’s hard line against Pakistan contributed to his falling-out with Karzai. Although he had an excellent relationship with the United States while he was Afghanistan’s intelligence chief—and it’s safe to assume those ties remain—Saleh believes America also underestimates Pakistani ambitions in his country. Western support for the reconciliation process doesn’t deter him. “I’m not raising this voice in sync with the interests of some other country,” he says. “We were not fighting for America and we are not fighting for America. Yesterday we were fighting for protection and defence of our dignity, and today we have raised our voice for the same purpose. So if the Western narrative has become compromise at the cost of us, it doesn’t mean because a few countries have decided to sell us out that we should remain silent.”
AFGHANISTAN’S peace-making efforts have had little effect. Some Taliban foot soldiers have come to the government’s side, but few leaders have. Last year a man who claimed to be a top Taliban commander met three times with NATO and Afghan officials, including President Karzai. He turned out to be an imposter and a clever fraud artist.
There are good reasons to be skeptical about any sort of breakthrough happening now. If, as many Afghans believe, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency runs the Taliban, a deal won’t be possible without Islamabad’s approval. It also seems clear that Afghanistan’s various insurgent groups are not sufficiently united to make binding collective decisions. There are several networks, and striking a bargain with one leader won’t deliver the others.
Finally, there’s little evidence that the Taliban are serious about peace. None of the deals reached between the Pakistani government and Taliban insurgents in that country lasted. The Taliban simply used them to gather strength before resuming their holy war. Attempts to negotiate with Afghan Taliban over the last few years haven’t even resulted in a Pakistani-style pact they could temporarily pretend to support.
Waheed Mozhdah is an Afghan who worked in the Taliban’s foreign ministry during its years in power and who knew Osama bin Laden since he first came to Afghanistan during the 1980s. Mozhdah now lives quietly in his Kabul house, with at least one squawking parrot in the garden. He has left the movement but is in touch with insurgent leaders now fighting NATO and the Afghan government.
Mozhdah tells Maclean’s that he and those leaders argue back and forth, including about the reconciliation process. They say there’s no point negotiating away gains they have earned on the battlefield. They ask why jihad was right against the Soviets but not against America. Mozhdah counters that even beating the Russians didn’t do much good in the end. Eastern Europe got its freedom and all Afghanistan got was more war. None of these conversations end with the Taliban deciding to make peace.
Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan’s defence minister, remains optimistic. He too implies he is in touch with the insurgents battling his government. “I know them. Some of them were my friends when we were fighting the Soviets,” he says. “If I make contact, I won’t tell you.”
So far, says Wardak, about 1,000 Taliban fighters have defected, taking up the government’s offer of help and protection in exchange for putting down their guns. He says these men are not often ideological radicals. They’re mercenaries. They’re fighting because they are poor or because they have local grievances that can be dealt with. Insurgent leaders are harder fish to catch. “It will depend more on the countries or the powers that are giving them sanctuary and support,” says Wardak, meaning Pakistan and its spy agency. But at least depriving Taliban leaders of grunts and low-level commanders will weaken them, he says. He predicts this process will accelerate. “The other side is testing us. If we deal properly with the initial re-integrees, there will be more to come. And I do believe in the future we can make some jackpots.”
As for the National Movement and Afghans who rally against peace-making with the Taliban, it’s all “political games,” Wardak says dismissively. “You see, the source of all evil here was the Communist party, which brought all these miseries upon us,” he says, referring to a 1978 coup that was followed by a Soviet invasion and a long and brutal war. “They initiated everything. More than two million Afghans were killed, and there were hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans and handicaps, right now also. We were able to forgive them. So what do you think the chances are of forgiving these others?”
THE TALIBAN, however, are not asking for forgiveness. They’re fighting to regain their power. Undefeated, they would want something in exchange for ending the war. Afghan women, who have benefited from the increased freedom of the post-Taliban era, have the most to lose.
“I’m not only worried. We are all afraid,” says Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan member of parliament and frequent recipient of Taliban threats. She says she will run for president in 2014. “If President Karzai paved the way for Talibanization, the worst would be for us women and the young generation of this country. Things would go worse in terms of our rights violations but also our security. Because most of us are now public figures. We’ve taken so much risk just to make reforms.”
Koofi believes Karzai is undermining Afghanistan’s democratic foundation by appointing a peace council to oversee negotiations with insurgents, rather than working through the elected parliament. And if the Taliban do regain their influence, she says, many Afghans will revolt. “Because these people will not be happy with Talibanization, they will go to civil war,” she says.
Others believe Afghanistan has come too far for fundamental rights to be bargained away. During the Taliban years, Shukria Barakzai, a parliamentary colleague of Koofi, was beaten in the streets of Kabul by regime enforcers. Uncowed, she established an underground school for girls. But talks with the Taliban don’t worry her. “Reconciliation is not an option. Reconciliation is a need,” she says, adding that those opposed to it, namely Saleh and Abdullah, are motivated by thirst for political power and a desire to move Afghanistan closer to India, which backed the Northern Alliance during the Taliban’s reign.
Barakzai was a member of the 2003 loya jirga that endorsed Afghanistan’s current constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression and the rights of women. She’s proud of that. She’s confident the constitution and the freedoms it promises will endure. “This is not something that will be in the hands of Hamid Karzai. The Afghan constitution is not a Karzai diary-book that he can change, write in, or remove pages from. This is the constitution that gives identity to Karzai and an elected president for five years, with specific duties.”
Barakzai says any attempts to make concessions on fundamental rights in the course of negotiations with the Taliban will be resisted. “I was the one who during the Taliban had my own girls’ school. I’m the one that wore a burka for five years by their order. I’m the one who ran a women’s organization under the Taliban when everything was closed and there was bad discrimination. Why? Because I’m a woman. I was the one that would not keep quiet at the time. How can you say that I would accept whatever they order of me? No way. Maybe in a dream.”
THE WEST’S BIGGEST mistake, according to members of Afghanistan’s political opposition, has been to back Hamid Karzai, rather than democracy and the country’s democratic institutions. This, they argue, has obscured from Western governments who their real friends in Afghanistan are.
“In the last 10 years we’ve seen a constant confrontation between forces of democracy and those who believe in tribalism, traditionalism, ethnicity and so on,” says Mahmoud Saikal, a former Afghan deputy foreign minister and long-time diplomat. He’s now part of the movement opposed to Karzai and a Taliban peace deal. “Naturally a person who believes in tribalism hates the ballot box, because the ballot box will unseat him.”
Karzai, says Saikal, knows he is losing the support of democratic Afghans, and so is pandering to Pashtun tribalism and to Taliban sympathizers. “Even though there is quiet among the people of Afghanistan, deep in their hearts, the closer Mr. Karzai gets to the Taliban, the bigger this distance will grow between the people of Afghanistan and Mr. Karzai,” he says.
Saikal warns that Afghanistan’s international allies risk finding themselves isolated along with the Afghan president. “This thing has become too personalized,” he says. “We should have supported processes. We should have supported systems. We should have supported the democratization of this country. We should have supported strengthening the rule of law and the institutionalization of Afghanistan, as opposed to looking for a figurehead and putting whatever we have behind this person and believing everything will be fine. It’s not.”
But allegations that support for Karzai and other friendly figureheads costs the West the goodwill of ordinary Afghans don’t always resonate with Afghanistan’s international partners. “I think it depends on which Afghans you’re hearing those criticisms from,” Alisa Stack, deputy chief of stability operations for ISAF Joint Command, told Maclean’s. “I tend to hear that from very well-educated Afghans in Kabul. If we go back to Kandahar or some of these areas, they’re much more focused on local government and building a resilient community.”
After 10 years of war, the West’s support for Karzai has taken on a momentum of its own. Now, with the prospect of a peace deal, Karzai offers the promise of an end to war and a chance for everyone to go home. It’s tempting. Saikal believes it’s an illusion, and chasing it is a mistake. The Taliban must still be defied, and democracy built.
“It’s going to be a rocky road, but it’s worth it,” he says. “At the end of the day, it will be a durable and sustainable solution for all, including the Canadian forces and the American forces who are looking for their own security in this part of the world. To me, a peace deal means absolutely nothing. What is needed is to make sure this country functions. It looks like we’ve put all our eggs in one basket now, looking for peace with the Taliban. And I can tell you one thing—that after a lot of effort and many, many hundreds of millions of dollars, you may reach that peace deal. But you will have lost the Afghan people.”