Who's afraid of talking to the Taliban? Many Afghans

As General Petraeus assumes command in Afghanistan, President Karzai is pushing Taliban negotiations, but many Afghan women and minorities resist such talks.

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters
Staff Sgt. Jimmy Dionicio from East Orange, N.J., with the US C Troop 1-71 CAV speaks with Hafizallah, the leader of several Afghan villages, during a patrol in the village of Maruf-Kariz in Dand district, south of Kandahar, on June 26. Some Afghans find it difficult to negotiate with the Taliban.

As Gen. David Petraeus prepares to take command of the Afghanistan war, President Hamid Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban is drawing warnings from some Afghan factions, particularly women and ethnic minorities. They argue that peace offerings are undermining efforts to expel the movement from its strongholds and could, if reconciliation progresses much further, turn the former warlords who helped overthrow the Taliban in 2001 against the current central government.

Malalai Ishaq Zai was a virtual prisoner in her own home in the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar for nine years after the Taliban seized the city and imposed their puritanical and misogynistic version of Islam on the population.

Since then, she has run a school, headed a women’s organization, and become the sole female representative of Kandahar Province in the current parliament. But it has not all been smooth. She practically quivers with rage when she talks about the 2006 kidnapping of her eldest son by the Taliban and issues a stern warning to President Karzai, who has been making peace overtures to the movement that provided a haven for Osama bin Laden.

“People will be pushed to go back to open warfare if he brings these people into the government,” she says, the gold bangles on her arm jangling. “Our people are dying because of them, your people are dying because of them, and meanwhile he’s building his relationship with the Taliban. And who supports the Taliban? Iran and the ISI [Pakistan military intelligence].”

Can Iraq model work here?

Notwithstanding such concerns, the United States in recent months has given a tentative blessing to Karzai's outreach efforts, though some American officials still express skepticism that the Taliban will actually deliver in negotiations. CIA chief Leon Panetta told ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday, “We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms [and] where they would denounce Al Qaeda.”

Yet Mohammad Akram, the director of the government’s Taliban reconciliation program, says he reckons only 15 percent or so of Taliban fighters are ideological die-hards influenced by Al Qaeda and committed to victory at any cost. He says his job is to convince the remainder that they won’t be punished if they lay down their weapons, and that they’ll have an economic future here.

Those US officials who support such reconciliation argue that if an accommodation can be made that ends violence and prevents Taliban control of much of the country, it could create the conditions for stamping out corruption and improving governance that are at the heart of the current international effort.

They point to the experience in Iraq, where the outreach – with cash – to Sunni insurgents was a crucial step to ending the civil war that erupted there in 2006. Known as the Sons of Iraq, they worked with the US to rout Al Qaeda.

But Afghanistan is not Iraq, and some Afghan leaders argue that the ideologically driven Taliban – who believe the country should be run by their stark interpretation of the Koran alone – are simply buying time, and that Pakistan still supports Taliban-led Pashtun hegemony inside the country.

“The Taliban are very clear in their ideology and their ultimate intentions. What they want is to make Afghanistan a place where it’s impossible for people like me to live,” says Waliullah Rahmani, a minority Hazara, who runs the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “Nothing is going to come of these talks except maybe encouraging the Taliban.”

Why minorities are opposed to Taliban reconciliation

The Taliban’s base of support lies in the Pasthun community, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, which includes Mr. Karzai.

Tajik and Uzbeks worry that in the short term, Taliban reconciliation could mean taking government jobs away from minorities; in the long term, it could lead to a Taliban takeover.

Tajik and Uzbek military commanders were among some of the most ferocious in the 1980s war to oust the Soviets, only to see the unity of the mujahideen – a catch-all for various ethnically and religiously based militias – disintegrate after the Soviets left in 1989.

What ensued was a civil war over the spoils, with warlords seeking to carve out their own fiefdoms to control smuggling and extortion opportunities.

That environment eroded what little trust and respect average Afghans had for the nominal government in Kabul, and helped fuel the rise of the Taliban, who were armed and funded by a Pakistan eager for a pliant government in Kabul. But the Taliban government passed over ethnic minorities for top posts, shut in the country's women, and persecuted religious minorities such as Shiites. These groups now form the backbone of opposition to any Taliban return.

“The majority of the people are not for a return of the Taliban,” says Abdullah Abdullah, a defeated challenger of Karzai’s in last year’s fraud-ridden presidential election. “But if you keep giving us a message that they are going to return, you confuse them [people], cause them to lose trust, and make them doubt whether it’s worth fighting.”

Dr. Abdullah, whose support base lies with the Tajiks, says the Taliban have no intention of giving up their plan to regain control of the country, and that Pakistan will continue to support them by giving haven to their fighters just across the border.

Peace jirga fallout

Karzai’s peace steps have included a so-called “peace jirga” convened in Kabul earlier this month that brought together 1,600 prominent Afghans to talk about the best way to approach negotiations with the insurgents. Yet many non-Pasthun warlords and politicians from the north were conspicuously absent.

Shortly after the jirga, the head of Afghanistan’s NDS intelligence agency, Amrullah Saleh, resigned his post. His friends say it was over opposition to talking to the Taliban. Mr. Saleh, a Tajik, had earlier branded prisoner-release plans a “disgrace.” Karzai has not since filled his post, and opposition politicians say they expect the president to fill it with a Pashtun.

Many average Tajiks were incensed by events and are convinced he [Saleh] was pushed out. “This man was honest, hardworking, and kept us safe,” says Naime Abdullah, visiting a market in Kabul from the Panjshir valley. “He was removed because he’s a Tajik, and we won’t forget that.”

After the jirga, Karzai set up a committee to review the cases of Taliban fighters in custody and freed 21 prisoners last week. The government said it found that almost all of the men were innocent, while two had turned themselves in before carrying out a suicide bombing mission.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent group of scholars and researchers, says that prisoner releases are nothing new and that it appears some men involved in violence have been among the beneficiaries. In a post on its website, the group quotes a released Taliban leader as saying “hundreds” of Taliban detainees were released on Karzai’s orders last September to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid el-Fitri.

One of detainees released last year was Taliban commander Akbar Agha, who now lives under close government supervision in Kabul. He had been sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2004 for ordering the kidnapping of three United Nations workers. (The captives, from Kosovo, the Philippines, and Britain, were eventually rescued.)

That sort of crime is among the reasons that Ms. Zai, the Kandahar member of parliament, cannot countenance any compromise with the Taliban.

“They kidnapped my son, executed other prisoners in front of him, and made me pay $150,000 for his freedom,” she says. “Bringing them into the government can’t be tolerated.”

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