By Kathy Gannon (CP)
PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai’s moves to make peace with the Taliban are scaring Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities into taking their weapons out of mothballs and preparing for a fight.
Mindful that Karzai’s overtures come with NATO’s blessing, and that U.S. and NATO forces will eventually leave, they worry that power will shift back into the hands of the forces they helped to overthrow in 2001.
Such a peace deal won’t be easy in a country with a complex ethnic makeup and a tradition of vendetta killings. With ethnic and tribal differences having sharpened during the violence of the last 30 years, there’s little indication that Karzai’s overtures are gaining much traction.
Still, some mujahedeen — commanders of the Northern Alliance of minority groups that fought the Taliban — are taking no chances. They speak openly of the weaponry they have kept despite a U.N. disarmament drive.
In the Panjshir Valley, heartland of the Northern Alliance, Mohammed Zaman says that when the U.N. came looking for weapons, “the mujahedeen gave one and hid the other 19.”
“We have plenty of weapons, rocket launchers and small arms and we can get any kind of weapons we need from the gun mafias that exist in our neighbouring countries,” he said. “All the former mujahedeen from commander to soldier, they have made preparations if they (the Taliban) come into the government.”
Zaman was speaking to The Associated Press at the grave of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Tajik leader who commanded the Northern Alliance and died in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11 attacks that provoked the U.S. invasion.
Somah Ibrahim, a U.N. spokesman, said 94,262 small arms and 12,248 heavy weapons were collected by the time the disarmament program ended in 2005. But fewer than half of them were destroyed; some went to the army and police, which many of the militiamen joined.
The Hazara, a mainly Shiite ethnic group, are also worried.
“We have lots of weapons but they are not modern weapons. They are simple weapons,” said Abbas Noian, a Hazara legislator.
“It is very bad, America announcing they will leave Afghanistan. It has given more power to the militants, more energy. Already we minorities are afraid. We want peace but we are afraid of a strong Taliban,” he said.
In late 2009, President Barack Obama spoke of starting a gradual pullout in July 2011 if conditions allowed, but then clarified that he was not envisaging a mass exodus at that time. Lately, attention has lately shifted to 2014, when Karzai expects his forces to be ready to take the lead in securing Afghanistan.
Fahim Dashti, a Tajik, was present when the bombers blew up Massoud. He survived with scarred hands and arms and now edits the English-language Kabul Weekly. Dashti says the minorities began rearming about 18 months ago.
“The reason is because we don’t know who President Karzai is talking to and what he is saying, but we feel the agenda of the government is to Pashtun-ize the government, the re-Talibanization of the system,” he said.
Most Taliban are Pashtun, the country’s majority ethnic group.
“We are afraid,” Dashti said. “We have the experience already of the Taliban. We know who they are and what they have done to other ethnic groups.”
Karzai’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the reports of rearmament.
The Taliban came to power in 1996 after years of civil war, imposed a harsh brand of Islam and played host to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida fighters. After the U.S.-led coalition invaded, the Northern Alliance militias gained control in a U.N.-crafted agreement. Karzai, a Pashtun with no militia of his own, became president.
But the Pashtuns felt sidelined in the new order, and analysts say their resentment has helped to reinvigorate the Taliban. Now the minorities worry that Karzai, besieged by allegations of corruption, may be returning to his Pashtun base for his political survival.
“The expectation is that insecurity will increase, that the hold of the government will slip even further, and that sooner or later it is all going to disintegrate,” said Martine van Bijlert director and co-founder of the Afghan Analysts Network, an independent think-tank .
“Many fear that it will be like the early 1990s, when there was civil war in Afghanistan and everyone fought everyone,” she said.
Abdullah Abdullah, a close associate of the assassinated Massoud and loser to Karzai in the fraud-ridden 2009 presidential election, blamed the U.S. He said its talk of withdrawal emboldened the Taliban.
“People are rearming in some parts of the country,” he said. “Who is going to protect them against the Taliban? NATO? Karzai?”
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Canadian Press