KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — In one corner of a soccer stadium that has seen both athletic contests and executions stands a poster some 20 feet tall of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. Perhaps appropriately, Feda Mohammad Mujahid has turned away from it.
The 25,000 Afghans crowded into this bare concrete oval hoist up different posters of stern-faced mujahideen commanders who first fought the Soviets, and then each other, before joining with America to oust the Taliban in 2001.
To Mr. Mujahid, wrapped in a white scarf against the winter chill, these are the heroes of Afghanistan's "holy wars," not war criminals. So he has come here to rail against Mr. Karzai and the tyranny of Western nations, which have opposed an Afghan bill that would grant the mujahideen amnesty for war crimes committed during the past 25 years.
"This is a mujahideen nation," he says, as nearby loudspeakers crackle with speeches of defiance. "We want the law of Islam, and the government of mujahideen."
Away from the teeming streets around the stadium, the attitudes of average Afghans take on a different air. Many express frustration that former military leaders who killed thousands and destroyed Kabul in a four-year civil war might never be brought to justice. Yet in a country still divided by tribes, tongues, and traditions, Friday's rally sent a clear message – that even now, Afghanistan's onetime warlords alone have the power to muster the masses.
In this rally, "you saw their continuing ability to mobilize people and to potentially influence politics," says Paul Fishstein, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent analysis organization here.
The bill itself, which was recently approved by both houses of Afghanistan's parliament, has attracted international attention largely because it has been portrayed as a self-serving political ploy. Those likely to benefit most from the legislation are legislators and government officials themselves, many of whom are former mujahideen who stepped into the political vacuum following the fall of the Taliban.
Among the speakers at Friday's event were members of parliament, the vice president, the president's top security adviser, an army chief of staff, and an energy minister.
To them, amnesty does offer a measure of self-preservation. The momentum for warlord amnesty here began after the execution of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a onetime US ally.
Former mujahideen members of parliament "thought that there might be a day that maybe they will face the same thing that Saddam Hussein faced," says Najibullah Kabuli, a member of the lower house of the Afghan parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, who abstained from voting on the amnesty bill because he thinks it is too broad.
"Didn't the US support the mujahideen?" asks protester Abdul Malik, noting how the mujahideen, too, were allies of the United States during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Even after the fall of the Taliban, the international community could have taken a stronger stand against allowing former warlords into politics, says Mr. Kabuli, the member of parliament. For a country that has been at war for 25 years, "it was not possible to have a government that was free of war criminals," he says. "But it was possible for the government to have fewer of these."
As the political winds have shifted from a focus purely on stability to issues of human rights and good governance, former mujahideen have emerged as an easy target.
A report by Human Rights Watch, for instance, called for several members of the government to be tried for war crimes.
"Human Rights Watch should consider the stability of Afghanistan, otherwise Afghanistan will go toward crisis again," cried security adviser Mohammed Qasim Fahim. "This country we have today was created by the holy war, by the mujahideen, and by their sacrifices."
In this conviction lies the warlords' greatest power. In a nation with a tribal heritage and a history of endless foreign interventions and abandonments, Afghans have come to trust only on those closest to them. As a result, warlords are able to mobilize unshakable support though regional or ethnic alliances.
For those who slogged through the mud of Kabul's soccer stadium, thrusting frenzied fists into the air and bearing massive posters of commanders around the field in a triumphal march, the amnesty is partially an act of healing these historic rifts. Mujahideen commanders who once turned Kabul to rubble in their attempts to kill each other were now standing side by side.
"This is a war-torn country," says Mujahid, his hands folded behind his back, counting crimson prayer beads. "We have suffered a lot and we don't want to fight each other again."
"Let's forget about the past and think about a prosperous future," he says. "We want to be united."
A peaceful protest is a part of that message, some say. "We want to show the people of the world that one day we were evil to each other, but we can be peaceful, too," says Mr. Malik.
However, many Afghans and experts alike are skeptical. "These things tend to be cyclical – there tend to be alliances of convenience," says Mr. Fishstein.
Far from the echoes of the soccer stadium, Kabul resident Mohammad Ewaz sits on a stone wall in the hills high above the Kabul plains. In the amber light of late afternoon, he sips his tea, taking a break from the new wall he and his friends are building a few feet away.
Farther down the slope, the remnants of shattered houses, destroyed in the civil war, emerge from the hillside. "This is the work of the people who are asking for amnesty," he says.
"If they are really intending to bring unity, then it is a good idea," he adds. "But if it is just words and nothing else, then I don't think that it is a useful thing."