Thu, Sep 05, 2019 - Page 9 News List

War-weary Afghans see little voice in their country’s fate

The real questions start when the Taliban sit down with regular Afghans for talks, not in negotiations between the Taliban and the US

By Cara Anna and Tameem Akhgar  /  AP, KABUL

Illustration: Mountain People

For almost a year, Afghanistan’s more than 30 million people have been in the awkward position of waiting as a US envoy and the Taliban negotiate their country’s fate behind closed doors.

An agreement on ending the US’ longest war, which the US once hoped to reach by this month, could set a timeline for US troops’ withdrawal, but also nudge aside this month’s presidential election and open the way for a Taliban return to power. The militants continue their attacks, again invading a major city, Kunduz, on Saturday and the city of Puli Khumri on Sunday.

Without a say in their own future, Afghans’ frustration is clear.

“We don’t know what is going on, but we are just so tired,” said Sonia, a teacher in the capital, Kabul, who like many people goes by one name.

Reflecting the helplessness, a new television ad shows residents of all 34 provinces holding up pieces of paper that simply read: “Peace.” An art group in Kabul has begun painting concrete blast walls with tens of thousands of tulips, the national flower, as symbols of the civilians killed in nearly 18 years of fighting.

A peace movement praised by Afghans for a daring march across the country warns that the Taliban, who control or hold sway over about half of Afghanistan nearly two decades after a US-led invasion toppled them from power, are just as harsh as the days when women were forced out of sight and entertainment was banned under Shariah law.

A 23-year-old member of the peace movement, Sayed Rahim Omid, shyly lowered his trousers and showed a still-painful wound on his leg where he said that Taliban members in his hometown in southern Helmand Province had whipped him with cables.

“Stop your activism,” they told him last month. “Who’s paying you?”

His family secured his release by swearing he would never speak out again. Then he promptly fled to Kabul.

Several peace marchers have been beaten up, he and fellow members said.

“I don’t know how to trust them,” Omid said of the Taliban, even as its leaders meet with Afghan-born US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad in a luxury setting in Qatar and signal regret for their past ways.

Repentance about the present seems to be another matter.

A former Taliban military leader in a province neighboring Kabul, Syed Akbar Agha, defended the beatings, saying that the peace movement gives the impression that the insurgent group does not want the war to end.

Sitting in a leafy yard in Kabul, he said that the Taliban’s tens of thousands of members would respect whatever is agreed to in Qatar, where the group has a political office.

He pointed to last year’s extraordinary ceasefire during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, during which fighters and Afghans chatted and posed for photographs. The Taliban later rejected a government call to try it again.

Better times are on the way for the Afghan people, Agha said, as about 20,000 US and other foreign troops prepare to withdraw in return for Taliban assurances that Afghanistan would not become a haven for terror groups plotting overseas attacks.

“Good memories of the Taliban will help them trust the Taliban and support them,” he said, but bristled when asked how the insurgent group could justify punishments such as stoning and cutting off hands.

“Are you a Muslim?” he asked.

Such talk puts Afghans on the defensive.

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