KABUL, Afghanistan — With the euphoria over the departure of Osama bin Laden slowly abating, hard political questions are coming to the fore. Afghans, long at the center of the whirlwind that began on 9/11, had begun to think that the war might at last be winding down.
The death of the Al Qaeda leader at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals had seemed to force the issue of a peace deal. An increasingly war-weary American public wants an end to the carnage, and opponents of the war were quick to give voice to the sentiment: we went into Afghanistan to get Osama and put an end to Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. Mission accomplished. Let’s go home.
The thought of an imminent withdrawal of international forces elated some Afghans, and sent others into a panic. Without the safety blanket of U.S. Marines around them, Afghans will be face to face with their own internal contradictions.
On Thursday we got a clear glimpse of what that might look like.
A rally on the outskirts of Kabul — in the parking lot of one of the city’s ubiquitous “wedding halls” — drew a crowd of several thousand people. The reporting of the exact number will doubtless become a political litmus test. Some news outlets estimated as few as 2,000, while others boldly stated that there were 15,000 present. Tolo, the most popular television station and usually the most reliable, simply called it “huge.”
The purpose of the gathering, billed as a “cry for justice,” was to protest any peace overtures to the Taliban, and to publicize a new front called the Basij e Melli, or the National Movement.
The rally was staged by two of the Afghan government’s harshest critics: former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, and former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah.
The crowd that came to listen and to cheer represents a small but determined segment of the population who see any accommodation with the Taliban as tantamount to treason. They were overwhelmingly Tajik, and largely from the Panjshir, the narrow valley that was home to national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud and also, not coincidentally, to Saleh and Abdullah.
Abdullah posed the most formidable challenge to President Hamid Karzai in the seriously flawed 2009 presidential elections, garnering enough votes to force a second round. Karzai resisted the runoff, insisting that he had won outright in the initial ballot, and that foreign intervention was responsible for irregularities on the vote count.
The president was finally persuaded to agree to the ballot, but Abdullah withdrew before the vote could take place, saying that he had no faith that the second round would be any less fraudulent than the first.
Saleh also has a troubled history with the Afghan president. He had been a long-serving member of the Karzai administration, heading the National Directorate of Security (NDS) from 2004 to 2010.
But in June 2010, an attack on Karzai’s Peace Jirga prompted the sacking/resignation of both Saleh and the interior minister, Hanif Atmar.
Saleh denies that he was fired, but did publicly acknowledge that Karzai had lost faith in him following the attack.
The former intelligence chief has long been an outspoken critic of Pakistan and of any possible peace deal with the Taliban.
At Thursday’s gathering, he also harshly rejected Karzai’s characterization of the Taliban as “disaffected brothers,” a term that the president has used repeatedly to try and convince the Taliban to lay down their arms and come back into the fold.
“You call them your brothers, this is a betrayal of this nation,” said Saleh, according to media reports. “The Taliban and Al Qaeda are terrorists… They have destroyed our lands and houses, dishonored our wives and families.”
Saleh is tapping into a wellspring of rage and resentment in Afghanistan that has a 30-year history and no easy solution.
“Karzai calls them ‘brothers’,’” grumbled one young man who works for an international organization. “What about the people they have killed? Are they not his ‘brothers’, too?”
The National Movement may choose to single out the Taliban, whose brutal regime certainly left a host of bitter memories in millions of Afghans. But pointing the finger at any one group for the devastation over the past three decades is a thankless task in a country that has been governed by a long succession of unpalatable regimes.
There has been more than enough violence and destruction to go around, from the jihad against the Soviets to the fratricidal civil war, through the Taliban years, right up to the present day, when international forces come in for a fair share of opprobrium.
For many Afghans, the worst time that they can remember was not the grey and silent Taliban era, when music, television, gambling and even kite-flying were forbidden, but the civil war years, when warlords held sway over the country, stealing, raping and murdering at will.
“The Taliban did not let us work or go to school,” said a female activist, whose family was prominent in the Communist regime under Dr. Najibullah. “But under the warlords we could not go out onto the street without the risk of being raped or killed.”
The legacy of the past 30 years is a lingering anger that divides Afghans predominantly along ethnic lines.
Pashtuns, who make up more than 40 percent of the population, nevertheless feel like a disenfranchised minority. The Taliban were overwhelmingly from the Pashtun ethnic group, and many Pashtuns believe that they are being blamed as a group for the excesses of the fundamentalists.
The Tajiks, with about 27 percent, rebel against Pahstun domination, and bristle at any perceived criticism of the Northern Alliance, particularly of the legendary Massoud.
The Hazara comprise about 9 percent of the population, according to the CIA factbook, although they claim much higher figures. They have a long history of victimization that fuels their own anger. Smaller ethnicities, like Uzbek, Turkmen, and Baloch, nurse their particular grievances in distinct regional pockets.
These tensions are not subtle; they are pervasive in all strata of society. A few years ago in Balkh province, police had to be called into the university to quell violent clashes between students who disagreed on which word for “university” should be on the school’s sign. The commonly accepted “pohuntun,” comes from Pashto, and the Tajik students wanted to substitute the purely Persian “daneshgaa.”
The conflict, of course, was not just about a word; it revived all the ethnic resentment that has been brewing for the past 30 years. How much more explosive will be the reaction to any hint that the Taliban might be brought back into Afghan society?
“There is no way to talk to these people (the Taliban); we have to get rid of them” said one young journalist in a recent workshop on “conflict-sensitive journalism.”
He flatly rejected any suggestion that the Taliban were also part of Afghan society.
“They are all foreigners,” he argued heatedly. “They have to be killed or driven out of the country.”
At Thursday’s rally, Saleh warned that his supporters would take to the streets if their demands were not heeded. Some have interpreted this as a hint that the National Movement would seek to foment a popular revolt modeled on the “Arab Spring.”
This is an odd overture from someone who has recently been given the title “Ambassador for Peace.” In April, Saleh was awarded the distinction in the Netherlands by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Universal Peace Federation.
But in the powder keg that is Afghanistan today, playing with fire is a dangerous game. The National Movement, with its green armbands and nationalist slogans, could well ignite a blaze that may be very difficult to extinguish.