Minority leaders leaving Karzai's side over leader's overtures to insurgents

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 23, 2010

PANJSHIR VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN -- The man who served as President Hamid Karzai's top intelligence official for six years has launched an urgent campaign to warn Afghans that their leader has lost conviction in the fight against the Taliban and is recklessly pursuing a political deal with insurgents.

In speeches to small groups in Kabul and across northern Afghanistan over the past month, Amarullah Saleh has repeated his belief that Karzai's push for negotiation with insurgents is a fatal mistake and a recipe for civil war. He says Karzai's chosen policy endangers the fitful progress of the past nine years in areas such as democracy and women's rights.

"If I don't raise my voice we are headed towards a crisis," he told a gathering of college students in Kabul.

That view is shared by a growing number of Afghan minority leaders who once participated fully in Karzai's government, but now feel alienated from it. Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek politicians have expressed increasing concern that they are being marginalized by Karzai and his efforts to strike a peace deal with his fellow Pashtuns in the insurgency.

Saleh's warnings come as the United States struggles to formulate its own position on reconciliation with the Taliban. While U.S. officials have supported Afghan government-led talks in theory, they have watched with apprehension as Karzai has pursued his own peace initiatives, seemingly without Western involvement.

NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Ambassador Mark Sedwill, cautioned recently that "any political reconciliation process has to be genuinely national and genuinely inclusive. Otherwise we're simply storing up the next set of problems that will break out. And in this country when problems break out, they tend to lead to violence."

Still, with war costs and casualties rising, U.S. policymakers are increasingly looking for a way out, and a power-sharing deal between Karzai and the Taliban may be the best they can hope for. One senior NATO official in Kabul described Saleh as "brilliant." But the official said Saleh's hard-line stance against negotiations does not offer any path to ending the long-running U.S. war.

Saleh, 38 and a Tajik, began his intelligence career in this scenic valley north of Kabul working for the legendary guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. He said he is not motivated by ethnic rivalries with the majority Pashtuns or by a desire to undermine Karzai, whom he describes as a decent man and a patriot.

Rather, Saleh said he wants to use nonviolent, grass-roots organizing to pressure the government into a harder line against the Taliban by showing that Afghans who do not accept the return of the Taliban are a formidable force. Saleh resigned last month as director of the National Directorate of Security after he said he realized that Karzai no longer valued his advice.

"The Taliban have reached the gates of Kabul," Saleh said. "We will not stop this movement even if it costs our blood."

Proceeding carefully

Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar declined to comment on Saleh's analysis. Karzai's government has made reconciliation a top priority, and officials say they are proceeding carefully. Karzai has invited Taliban leaders to talk, but he has said insurgents must accept the constitution, renounce violence and sever their links to foreign terrorists before they can rejoin society.

Those conditions do little to mollify Afghan minority leaders, many of whom had backed Karzai in the past but are now breaking with the president. Some are concerned that a deal between Karzai and the Taliban could spawn the sort of civil war that existed in Afghanistan prior to the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company