There are few things more divisive in Afghanistan today than the question of talking to the Taliban.
The issue has become a national hot-button since President Hamid Karzai created a High Peace Council in September to reach out to the Taliban and bring them into negotiations.
And it has only grown more controversial as Western powers, too, appear to increasingly back the effort.
A revelation in November 2010 that both Afghan and NATO officials were duped by an imposter into thinking they were talking with a high-level Taliban leader was not just taken locally as a measure of the allies' gullibility. It was also seen as a measure of the intensity of their negotiations drive. The imposter turned out to be a Pakistani shopkeeper according to some news reports, a Pakistani spy according to others.
On May 5, the tensions over whether to talk to the Taliban spilled into the streets of Kabul. More than 10,000 people assembled in the parking lot of one of the capital's giant wedding palaces to oppose both reconciliation with the militants and the involvement of Pakistan in any peace deal.
The rally, organized by former intelligence director Amrullah Saleh and attended by former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, also urged the international community to not support Karzai in making deals with the Taliban.
"Making deals" is an accusation the government rejects. But it also is one that has become increasingly easy to make as months go by with no word about which groups the High Peace Council is speaking with.
This week, Radio Free Afghanistan invited both the rally's organizer, Saleh, and High Peace Council Secretary Masoom Stanikzai to take part in a roundtable on Afghan politics. The conversation provided a rare opportunity for a strong critic of the peace talks and a strong proponent of them to publicly contrast their positions.
Saleh, who is widely seen as a rising leader of the opposition, said he strongly objects to Karzai's referring to the Taliban as "brothers" in talks over Afghanistan's future.
"Becoming too benign and soft and calling them brother and convincing people that if it works it will be an alliance of two brothers; that is not going to help the country," Saleh said.
Instead, he said, the government must make clear to the Taliban that they have a place in Afghanistan only if they accept the values of pluralism and a parliamentary system. He said he does not rule out talks per se, but his message to the Taliban is this.
"You must become a mainstream political force, play according to the scripts of democracy. If you win, either in a province or at a sub national level, or beyond that, through the script of democracy we will not create any hurdles for you to govern," Saleh said.
"But if you come through the barrel of a gun, through IEDs, through suicide bombings, through beheadings, we will not bow to terrorism; we will not bow to that kind of force."
He also charged that the government's initiative has not drawn such clear red lines and, that in the absence of them, talks run the risk of worsening the situation.
"What if we continue to talk about peace for another three years and the reciprocation from our enemy is more suicide attacks, more school burnings, more assassinations, more massacres, and more marginalization of the society?" Saleh said.
"I am of the opinion that if we resort to national mobilization -- that means capitalizing on the aspirations, demands, and hopes of the Afghan people -- we can reduce the Taliban again to a group not necessarily representing any ethnic group or any side of the country but a proxy force representing the interests of Pakistan and certain other circles in the Middle East."
Saleh, who was a young protege of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood, has frequently accused Pakistan of sponsoring the Taliban. He previously has suggested that if a deal is cut with the Taliban that does not provide security, "We will resist against the deal; 'We' meaning all the forces who fought the Taliban."
Saleh served under Karzai as director of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) from 2004 to 2010 but resigned after insurgents attacked the peace jirga in Kabul last June as it approved Karzai's plans to create a High Peace Council.
The peace council, whose 60 members are picked by Karzai, has said its goal is to reach out to the Taliban and other insurgent groups to persuade them to disarm and join the political process.
The council's members range from former presidents to prominent leaders of the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s. There are also tribal elders and former members of the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami, or Islamic Party, whose active members constitute the bulk of the insurgency today.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has referred to the Taliban as "brothers"
Stanikzai, the High Peace Council's secretary, said during the roundtable that it has no plans to make secret deals with the Taliban -- a fear sometimes raised by critics.
"In the peace process there is no backroom deal. There is a clear policy with an internal aspect and also an international aspect. It is not helpful when internationally there are new ideas every day to change things. The important thing is to turn the talks into a reality," Stanikzai said.
'Shroud Of Secrecy'
He also argued that there is a strong basis for understanding between Afghanistan's warring parties because all Afghans want the same thing: "What the majority of Afghan people want is very clear. The Afghan people want work. The Afghan people want justice. The Afghan people want peace."
But whether all Afghans can see justice the same way after more than three decades of warfare and upheavals is a big question. The government has frequently said that the peace process cannot include those who have committed crimes against the Afghan people, and Stanikzai repeated that position.
"The policy is clear. Those who are guilty, those who are involved in [drug] smuggling, and other people who are directly involved in criminal activities [like terrorism], nobody can forgive them," Stanikzai said.
Stanikzai, who is one of Karzai's top internal security advisers, has previously said that talks are ongoing and that "we have sent various representatives to their side and they have sent their representatives to our side." But he has also said that "due to security and political issues, the opposition cannot publicly announce that, 'Yes, we are ready for reconciliation.'"
Publicly, Taliban spokesmen have repeatedly rejected the council's overtures and vowed not to negotiate unless the more than 140,000 international troops based in the country withdraw.
The shroud of secrecy over the talks with the Taliban is likely to continue. And in the information vacuum that creates, the current disagreements among ordinary Afghans over whether to talk with the Taliban is certain to continue.
The level of disagreement already is enough to bring 10,000 people out to protest. Now, the challenge for the government is how to explain its policy enough to keep the rallies from growing exponentially in the months ahead.
Radio Free Afghanistan's Zarif Nazar, Jan Alekozai, and Mustafa Sarwar contributed to this report. Written by Charles Recknagel