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Thousands of Afghans gather to oppose talks with Taliban

Denounce efforts by Karzai to work with ‘terrorists’

Supporters of Afghanistan’s former intelligence director, Amrullah Saleh, waved green flags during a gathering in Kabul yesterday. Those at the gathering urged Afghans to reject a plan by President Supporters of Afghanistan’s former intelligence director, Amrullah Saleh, waved green flags during a gathering in Kabul yesterday. Those at the gathering urged Afghans to reject a plan by President (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)
By Alissa J. Rubin
New York Times / May 6, 2011

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KABUL — More than 10,000 people gathered yesterday in Kabul to oppose reconciliation with the Taliban and the involvement of Pakistan in any peace deal, warning that it would be a betrayal of the Afghan people’s long fight against extremism.

The meeting, organized by a former intelligence director, Amrullah Saleh, and also attended by Abdullah Abdullah, a former presidential candidate, was a frontal attack on the current government’s policies, and speakers denounced both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The organizers promised that if they were not listened to, they would “go to the streets and protest.’’

Under the name “a gathering for justice,’’ the meeting was attended overwhelmingly by Afghans from the north and particularly from Panjshir province, the home of the Afghan icon Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed by suicide bombers backed by Al Qaeda two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Panjshir is also the home province of Saleh and Abdullah. Both men have long experienced friction with President Hamid Karzai. The president forced out Saleh, and Abdullah withdrew from a runoff election against Karzai in 2009 because, he said, the voting would be rigged.

“The Taliban and Al Qaeda are terrorists,’’ said Saleh, as he looked out across the crowd, many of them young people. “They have destroyed our lands and houses, dishonored our wives and families.’’

Then Saleh addressed Karzai: “You call them your brothers, this is oppression — to this nation; they are not our brothers.’’ That was a criticism of Karzai’s frequent reference to the Taliban not as enemies but as “upset brothers’’ or “angry brothers.’’

The meeting was held in the parking lot of one of Kabul’s many immense wedding halls, and the manager, who asked that his name not be used, said that his staff had set out more than 10,000 chairs. Almost every one was filled, and overflow crowds gathered outside to listen to the speeches over loudspeakers.

The dominance of northerners at the gathering raised the issues of the growing tension over the prospect of a peace deal with the Taliban and the very different outlooks of the predominantly non-Pashtun north of Afghanistan and the overwhelmingly Pashtun south.

“As you know, one tribe, one circle, has governed Afghanistan,’’ said Rasullah Paya, 22, a Kabul University student, referring to the Pashtuns, the ethnic group of Karzai. “From now on we don’t want one circle, one tribe, one nation, to run the government,’’ said Paya, who is of the Hazara ethnic group.

A peace council, with more than 60 members picked by Karzai, has been involved in reaching out to the Taliban and other insurgent groups to persuade them to lay down their weapons and join the government.

Saleh worked for Karzai until last June when insurgents attacked a peace jirga held in Kabul with rockets. In the wake of the attack, Karzai forced both Saleh and the interior minister at the time, Hanif Atmar, to offer their resignations because they had not preempted the attack. While Saleh is a Tajik, Atmar is a Pashtun, and they have criticized the government’s failure to root out corruption and to take a tough stand against the Taliban.

Underlying the reason for the gathering and on the minds of many in attendance was Karzai’s recent meeting with senior Pakistani officials at which the two countries’ leaders pledged to work together to bring peace to the region. However, in private, the Pakistanis pushed for changes in Afghan policies, urging the country to draw closer to China and implicitly distance itself from the United States.

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