Features | Security | Central Asia

Afghans Wary of Peace Bid

The Afghan peace jirga has broken up with no breakthrough. But should Karzai even be trying to reach out to the Taliban?

Noor Aqha will never forget the suicide attack last February near Kabul’s main market, Sher-e-Naw, because he’s lucky to have survived it. Aqha was in a taxi on his way to work from the Dasht-e-barchi district on the outskirts of the city when the bomb went off. The 25-year-old IT professional says he’s still traumatized by the experience and appears uncomfortable when discussing it.

He’s far from alone. Afghanistan has witnessed countless such attacks since the fall of the Taliban, but the violence that has wracked the country is not a recent phenomenon—for more than three decades, including during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, the people of Afghanistan have suffered the see-saw battle of hope and despair, life and death.

For almost a decade now, US-led international forces have been trying to patch the war-torn country up, but with the break-up of the peace jirga at the weekend without any decisive breakthrough there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the conference in an effort to find ways of bringing some Taliban elements into the process of reconciliation, and the idea of talking peace with the Taliban and hard-line Islamists is tempting to many, including Noor.

‘I think it’s better to have the Taliban negotiating with the Afghan government, because they’re also part of Afghan society and Afghanistan is their soil,’ he says. ‘This will bring unity among the people and will drive foreign forces out of Afghanistan.’

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But a substantial majority of the country remains sceptical about trying to bring the militant outfit into the mainstream.

Nayeem Osami, a taxi driver, doesn’t share Noor’s optimism. Nayeem served as a bodyguard and member of the personal staff of the late Mujaheedin leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was instrumental in leading the rebellion against Soviet forces in 1980s.

‘Do you really think Mullah Omar and Hamid Karzai are going to come together? Do you think that Pakistan is going to allow the Taliban to deal with the Afghanistan government? It’s impossible,’ Nayeem says in frustration. ‘So long as the Taliban is under the influence of Pakistan this country isn’t going to see peace.’

Karzai’s jirga was called to bring together tribal elders, officials and local powerbrokers from around the country to discuss peace. Reports suggested a 36-page document was drafted outlining plans for drawing in low to mid-level militant fighters with promises of jobs, literacy and vocational training and development aid for their villages. It also spoke about ‘reaching out to top Taliban leaders…through political channels, perhaps by striking them off the UN sanctions list or granting a few the right to be exiled to another nation.’

But many Afghans believe justice—and holding the Taliban to account for their crimes—should come before any attempt to reintegrate them.

Freba Zehar, a Kabul-based journalist, wants justice following the murder of her father, who was kidnapped and then killed by the Taliban in Helmand Province. His mutilated body was found a month after he was taken and Zehar’s whole family was forced to flee to Kabul for their safety.

‘How can you trust the Taliban? What’s the guarantee that they’ll not go back to the mountains once their money runs out?’ she asks. ‘The most important question is: can the Taliban stick to their decisions? And countries that are enemies of Afghanistan don’t want any peace here.’

Abdul Hashemi, who runs the Simorgh Film Association in Herat, is part of the minority Hazara community that was one of the worst victims of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. He says the idea of talking with the insurgents repulses him.

‘Karzai isn’t thinking in the interests of everyone in Afghanistan—he’s just thinking about Pashtuns. If he’s serious then he should involve parliament in the whole peace process,’ Hashemi says. ‘Why isn’t he taking the parliament into his confidence?’

‘Karzai wants to create a Pashtunistan in place of Afghanistan,’ Hashemi adds. ‘Does he care that there are also Tajik, Turkmeni, Hazara and other tribal groups living here?’

Political analysts agree on the need to ensure that the parliament is involved in the entire peace process.

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‘I think the peace process would be effective if conducted under the Constitution. Peace under these conditions would be enduring’, says Ali Ahmad Pasoon, editor of the Afghanistan Times, one of the leading English dailies in Kabul.

But Pasoon, like many Afghans, sees Pakistan looming large over the drive for peace.

‘Pakistan won’t change its policy and Taliban led by Pakistan’s intelligence agency won’t be interested in reconciliation,’ Pasoon says.

Haroon Mir, head of the Afghanistan Policy and Research Centre in Kabul, agrees that Pakistan is a potential stumbling block.

‘Pakistan doesn’t want to lose its leverage over the Taliban and they don’t want the Islamist radicals to take independent decisions,’ Mir says. ‘Karzai should keep this in mind when he’s making any plans for peace,’ he adds, noting that Pakistan arrested Mullah Baradar, a top Taliban leader who was in touch with the Afghan government over the peace process.

Mir says he believes Karzai has been acting independently of the parliament over the holding of the jirga because he believed he wouldn’t have its support after it rejected some of his ministerial nominees. ‘Karzai thinks the tribal council will give him its full backing.’

But Mir believes Karzai will anyway have trouble luring the Taliban over. ‘There’s an ongoing military offensive in the southern part of Afghanistan. Then you have the US military surge. The military offensive will go on till next summer and in this kind of situation it’s difficult for President Karzai to present peace plans to the Taliban.’

Wahid Mujda, a political analyst who worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Taliban, agrees that it’s difficult at this stage for Karzai to be offering anything to the Taliban.

‘Karzai knows Mullah Omar personally,’ Mujda says. ‘He knows what Mullah Omar wants and he knows the Taliban leadership will never negotiate as long as foreign troops are in Afghanistan…They don’t fight for money and land. In my opinion, Karzai has no practical basis for talks—he’s just doing this for his own political goals.’

The sentiment is echoed by Malwai Anwar, a Taliban Commander in Kunar Province in southern Afghanistan who says he doesn’t believe dialogue is possible as long as US forces remain in Afghanistan. ‘This is our country, and once American and other foreign forces leave, we and our fellow countrymen will sit together and discuss the matter amongst ourselves.’

About $160 million was pledged by the international community for the Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Programme, which has been planned for months. But the plight of Wazma Bahar, a student and theatre performer, underscores the difficulties in striking the balance on how far to go in trying to integrate the militants.

Bahar’s father was murdered in 1999 for standing up to the Taliban, forcing her mother to abandon her career and flee to Iran with the family for their safety.

‘The whole Taliban leadership should be brought to justice for inflicting such physical and psychological pain on the people of Afghanistan,’ Bahar says angrily. ‘They destroyed everything that was good in the country.’

For the many Afghans like Bahar, the issue is personal, and the desire for justice continues to trump what is still an unclear path to peace.