Afghan women attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Kabul. Under the Taliban,… (Paula Bronstein, Getty…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — It was a peaceful afternoon in a rose-fragrant Kabul park set aside for women. But when girls and women strolling its pathways were asked about the Afghan government's overtures to the Taliban movement, faces that had been alight with pleasure grew tight with apprehension.
"They don't change — if the Taliban had power, things would be just as they were before, when we could not work, or leave our houses, or even imagine a place like this, where we can walk freely," said Maryam Hashimi, a 49-year-old office worker who recalled witnessing Taliban beatings of women for infractions such as allowing a glimpse of their ankles to be visible under full-body veils.
As the West and President Hamid Karzai's government redouble efforts to coax insurgents into peace negotiations, a loose coalition of women's groups, human rights activists, professionals, Karzai critics and ethnic groups is beginning to coalesce in opposition to such talks.
Most Afghans believe a negotiated settlement is the only way to bring the decade-old conflict to an end. But many also fear the price of any peace, worried that desperation for a deal will result in too many concessions to the militants, potentially paving the way for a return of notoriously repressive elements of Taliban rule.
"The problem is the tools and the method that the Afghan government has chosen for approaching negotiations," political analyst Sanjar Sohail said. "There are other ways to get a better result."
Karzai has made hopes of reconciliation with the Taliban the focus of his second term in office. Along with the Obama administration, he says reconciliation can only come if the insurgents meet three conditions: renouncing violence, severing ties with Al Qaeda and promising to respect the Afghan Constitution.
But the demands have come with flowery public appeals to the Taliban, whom Karzai routinely refers to as "dear, disaffected brothers," leave many Afghans with the uneasy sense he would do almost anything to draw the insurgents into dialogue.
Meanwhile, falling support for the war in the United States has increased the political pressure on the Obama administration to find a way out of a nearly 10-year-old conflict that appears to be without end. In a much-noted shift in policy last February, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the three demands Karzai made were no longer preconditions for beginning talks, but the "necessary outcomes of any negotiation."
The heightened sense of urgency to engage the Taliban rubs against the country's volatile ethnic politics. Like Karzai, the militant Islamic movement is almost entirely ethnic Pashtun. Many of those most critical of the move to reconcile are ethnic Tajiks, who make up about 27% of the population. Tajiks rose to prominence in the Northern Alliance, the militia that fought the civil war that ultimately, with American help, toppled the Taliban.
A Taliban campaign to assassinate other ethnic leaders has increased those tensions. Northern Alliance partisans were deeply shaken by the May 28 killing of one of the bloc's most powerful figures, Gen. Mohammed Daud Daud, an ethnic Tajik who was the northern regional police chief. He died in a brazen Taliban bombing in the northern province of Takhar.
Other Tajik leaders have warned against talks that could lead to compromising the ideals of a pluralist Afghanistan. One of Karzai's harshest critics is former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, his chief rival in the acrimonious, fraud-riddled 2010 contest for the presidency. Abdullah has been presiding over sometimes-raucous public rallies demanding greater caution in reaching out to the Taliban. Another prominent Tajik figure in the opposition camp is Amrullah Saleh, fired last year by Karzai as intelligence chief after voicing distrust of Pakistan over its dealings with insurgents.
The Obama administration must also balance any desire for reconciliation with the need to ensure it is not seen to be abandoning its commitments to the rights of Afghan women and minorities.
The Taliban movement itself has publicly rejected the idea of peace talks, although there have been some preliminary Western contacts with insurgent figures in recent months. The United States and its allies have been burned in the past by figures purporting to speak for Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. In one highly embarrassing incident, a man transported to Afghanistan by the NATO force for high-level discussions turned out to be an impostor.
Many Afghans are aware of war-weariness among the Western allies, and are acutely worried that a push to wind down the conflict will work to the Taliban's advantage. A U.S. military drawdown is to begin in July, the Canadians are wrapping up their combat mission, and other members of the coalition have expressed growing qualms about the Afghan mission, particularly in the wake of Bin Laden's death.