Afghanistan: A First Step Toward 'Turning' Moderate Taliban?
But their overtures have been largely rejected -- until now.
On January 7, the Afghan government announced that a former Taliban commander who switched sides before a battle last month to secure Musa Qala, a Taliban-held southern town, had been named the government's top official there.
By making a deal with Mullah Abdul Salaam, the new district chief of Musa Qala, the government appears to have taken a key step toward changing the face of Afghan politics. And Kabul is hoping the move will encourage more defections by moderate Taliban.
From his headquarters in Musa Qala today, Mullah Abdul Salaam told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that his appointment is already fostering reconciliation between the government and moderate Taliban.
"There were many problems before. There was no trust before. There was no one you could trust," he said. "People didn't know whom to contact. Now they are talking with me. They give me assurance and I give them assurances. There were many problems before. There was no trust before."
Mullah Abdul Salaam was once the Taliban's governor in the southern Afghan province of Oruzgan -- the birthplace of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, as well as Karzai.
Now, the powerful local commander brings some 300 militia fighters to the side of the Afghan government in a strategic part of Helmand Province. More importantly, his allegiance to Kabul helps extend the central government's authority into an area seen as a bastion of popular support for the Taliban.
Christopher Langton, who studies Afghanistan at London's International Institute For Strategic Studies, says it is a particularly important area for President Karzai to stabilize.
"If it is stabilized, all sorts of follow-on could occur in other parts of the country when people see a successful outcome [in Helmand Province]," Langton says.
Langton says the stabilization of Musa Qala and the fertile farmland of the nearby Sangin Valley would allow repairs and upgrades to the nearby Kajaki hydroelectric dam. That, in turn, would allow the government to provide more irrigation, water, and electricity to as many as 2 million people in southern Afghanistan.
That would signal to Afghans elsewhere that their living conditions can be improved if they cooperate with the Afghan government. Langton says it also would allow the international community to be seen as an agent of positive change in Afghanistan rather than as an invader and occupier.
Taliban fighters captured Musa Qala in February 2007 after the collapse of a British-backed peace deal with militants in the area. Just before last month's NATO-led offensive to recapture the town, delegates from Kabul met with Mullah Abdul Salaam and won promises for the allegiance of his Alizai tribe. Since then, other tribal leaders in Helmand Province have supported Salaam's appointment as Musa Qala district chief.
Deal-Making, Not Nation-Building
Still, Langton warns there could be limits to the deal. He warns that Salaam's willingness to support the Kabul government doesn't necessarily reflect a strong desire on his part to strengthen Afghanistan as a whole.
"It's a very localized thing because Abdul Salaam fits into the requirements of the Kabul government in that locality. In Afghanistan, typically, deals are struck in the interest of individuals principally," Langton says. "We shouldn't come away from this with a notion that this is a good thing across the board and there is a massive interest in building the nation by Abdul Salaam. He is obviously getting something out of it. And that is how things work."
Afghan presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada says Mullah Abdul Salaam's appointment reflects Kabul's policy of seeking to engage in dialogue with moderate Taliban who recognize the country's Islamic constitution and agree not to fight the authority of the central government.
"The president has said before that all those former Taliban who come and accept the constitution and who want to participate in the political process through non-violent means, they are all welcome. And Musa Qala is one example," Hamidzada says.
"Mullah Salam had a role in liberating Musa Qala from the terrorist elements. And he had a role in bringing unity among the different tribes and also among the larger community there. And he is now at the service of his people. And he enjoys the support of the government as well as the support of the people."
Yet the issue of government negotiations with the Taliban has been a subject of heated debates in the Afghan media and in the parliament.
On the one hand, such deals could weaken Taliban hard-liners by creating divisions between local commanders in different parts of the country.
But steps toward a political dialogue with former Taliban officials also could anger politicians from the former Northern Alliance who fought on the side of U.S.-led coalition forces to help drive the Taliban from Kabul in late 2001.
Some members of Afghanistan's upper house of parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, have accepted the principle of negotiating with the Taliban. They argue that improving security in Afghanistan is directly linked to the Taliban's participation in national politics.
The appointment of Mullah Abdul Salaam as the Musa Qala district chief demonstrates that Kabul aims to win over disaffected Taliban commanders who are unhappy about ties between Taliban hard-liners and foreign Al-Qaeda fighters.
Hamidzada stresses that hard-liners still trying to reestablish Taliban rule through militancy have no right to participate in Afghanistan's evolving political dialogue. "As far as other Taliban are concerned, whoever is accepting the [Afghan] constitution and wants to do what they can through the political process, the doors are open to them," Hamidzada says.
But the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, the moderate Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaif, says Kabul will have to talk to Taliban hard-liners too, if it wants real peace in Afghanistan. "The Afghan government wants to reach members of the Taliban individually. And Mr. Karzai himself is trying to contact the Taliban individually," Zaif says.
"But they are fighting for a specific purpose. So until they start trying to resolve the problem in a broader way, I think [the Taliban] will continue to fight."
(Contributors to this story include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh in Helmand Province as well as Radio Free Afghanistan's Ajmal Siddique, Mohmand Hashem, and Asmattullah Sarwan)
Kabul Pleads With Tehran To Delay Refugee Expulsions
Rezai, 20, is the daughter of Afghan refugees who fled war in their homeland 25 years ago. Until now, her family of eight has lived in the town of Boen-Zahra in Qazvin Province, west of Tehran. Rezai and her five siblings were all born there. It's the only home they've ever known.
Rezai's father works as a brickmaker. Most of his income goes to pay rent. Speaking Farsi with a strong Iranian accent, Rezai tells RFE/RL she would like to study or work to contribute to her family's income but can't "because all doors are closed to Afghan refugees."
She says she wanted to attend university but "wasn't allowed."
"I was told that I have had only the right to go to school, but I have no right to be admitted to university," she says. "I'm looking for a job in Boen-Zahra, but businesses say, 'We don't employ Afghans.' I can't find a job."
Luckier Than Most
Nevertheless, Rezai's parents consider themselves "lucky." They have legal refugee status, a roof over their heads, and food on the table.
Others are less fortunate. An estimated 1.5 million Afghans living in Iran without legal registration face a threat of immediate deportation or arrest. Last week, Interior Ministry officials said they had warned Afghan illegal immigrants to leave Iran or face up to five years in prison.
Iran began forcibly repatriating Afghan refugees in April, when the Interior Ministry said it would send 1 million immigrants back to Afghanistan by March 2008. Despite protests from Kabul, tens of thousands Afghans have so far been forced out.
According to Afghan refugees in Iran, the police have rounded up Afghan men, put them in buses, and dropped them off along the Iranian-Afghan border -- often without even informing their families. Iran's semi-official Fars news agency quotes officials from the Foreigners' Police as saying that as many as 20,000 Afghans were expelled in the first three days of the latest refugee expulsion drive alone.
According to official figures, there are some 900,000 legally registered Afghan refugees living in Iran. Most refugees, regardless of their legal status, work in construction or other low-paying manual jobs.
Tehran has steadily increased pressure on refugees over the past year in a bid to drive them out. Some Afghan immigrants complain that without official permission, they can no longer obtain medical insurance, open bank accounts, or buy homes.
More importantly, refugees' children are denied access to public schools unless they pay tuition fees that many of them cannot afford.
Voices Of Concern
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and rights activist, is involved in defending the refugee children's right to education.
"Children born to mixed families -- Iranian and Afghan parents -- don't have passports, because the Iranian government has not given them passports, so they are deprived of their right to education," Ebadi tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "Afghans have set up several schools in Tehran for these children, but Iran's Ministry of Education does not officially recognize these schools."
Tehran has defended its decision on expulsion, saying the plan targets only illegal immigrants. The Interior Ministry says those who have been expelled have the right to return if they obtain the proper documents from Iranian consulates in Afghanistan.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kabul confirms that Iran so far has mostly expelled unregistered immigrants. Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, tells RFE/RL that Iran has expelled some 360,000 Afghan immigrants since April -- and that the majority of them had been living in Iran illegally.
Authorities in Kabul are concerned.
A spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, Sultan Ahmad Beheen, told reporters in Kabul this week that the ministry had not been officially informed about Tehran's latest decision. He said that following the recent media reports, the ministry contacted the Iranian Embassy in Kabul to discuss the fate of Afghan refugees.
"These reports are inconsistent with previous discussions and agreements we had [with Iran over the refugee issue], and we hope that at least during the cold winter months, the Afghans will not be forced to leave Iran," Beheen said.
Beheen added that a high-level Afghan delegation would go to Tehran soon to ask the Iranian authorities to delay the deportation of Afghans for a few months to allow Kabul to prepare for their return.
Amid a violent insurgency in its south, Afghanistan is finding it hard to cope with thousands of internally displaced people as well as millions of former refugees repatriated from Pakistan and Iran.
Most of them have congregated in the already overburdened capital, Kabul, and other cities, adding to unemployment and housing problems. Thousands live in tents and makeshift homes on city outskirts, or rent places in the poorest areas.
Since 2002, some 4 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan under a coordinated voluntary repatriation of refugees from Iran and Pakistan. They receive limited assistance from the UNHCR to resettle in their homeland.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Zarif Nazar contributed to this report.)
Afghanistan: Marriage Practice Victimizes Young Girls, Society
Torpekay, for example, is an Afghan girl from western Herat Province. Although just 17, she has been married for four years.
Torpekay tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that becoming a wife at the tender age of 13, being forced to serve her husband's family, and having virtually no say in her own life have taken a heavy toll on her. So heavy, she says, that she tried to escape -- by taking her own life.
She survived the attempt, and has been recovering at a local hospital. "I was so angry that I wanted to kill myself," she says, asking that her surname not be used. "I didn't have a knife, I didn't have any drug to inject into myself, so I decided to set myself on fire. Using gasoline was the easiest way."
The issue of child marriages, which affects more than 50 million girls worldwide according to the United Nations, was thrust back in the headlines recently when the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) selected its "Photo of 2007." The winning shot, by American photographer Stephanie Sinclair, shows a 40-year-old Afghan man, Mohammad, sitting next his visibly horror-stricken fiancee, Ghulam. She is barely 11 years old.
"We needed the money," Ghulam's parents, from Ghor Province, were quoted as saying.
UNICEF says child marriages are a reaction to extreme poverty. They mainly take place in Asian and African regions where poor families see daughters as a burden and as second-class citizens. The girls are given into the "care" of a husband, and many of them end up abused. Morever, they are often under pressure to bear children, but the risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth for girls under 14 is five times higher than for adult women.
Still Clutching Toys
According to UNICEF, 57 percent of Afghan marriages involve girls under 16. Women's activists say up to 80 percent of marriages in the country are either forced or arranged. And the problem is particularly acute in poverty-stricken rural areas.
In such places, many girls are forced into marriages when they are as young as nine or 10, says Khatema Mosleh of the Afghan Women's Network (AWN), a nonpartisan group of organizations that campaign for women's rights in Afghanistan. Most marry far older men -- some in their 60s -- whom they meet for the first time at their wedding.
So young are some girls, Mosleh says, that they hold onto their toys during the wedding ceremony. And they usually become mothers in their early teens, while they are still children themselves.
"When we speak with girls who married very young, they usually say, 'It feels like we didn't have a life, we didn't have childhood,'" Mosleh says. "These girls don't even remember their wedding day because they were so young. They say, 'We had a wedding, but we didn't even understand what the ceremony meant.'"
Women and children's rights activists in Afghanistan say the marriages are imposed on young girls for a variety of reasons.
In Afghan villages, it's considered dishonorable for families for daughters to meet and date boys. Some parents try to marry their daughters as soon as possible to avoid such a prospect. A lack of security during more than three decades of war, and the risk of kidnapping and rape, has also prompted many families to force their young daughters into marriage. And widespread poverty still compels many parents to get their daughters married to avoid the cost of caring for them.
According to Mosleh, most men who marry young girls are much older and wealthier, and they pay significant amounts of money to the families of the young brides.
Young marriages have contributed to high rates of death among women, infant mortality, and particularly maternal deaths. At 44, an Afghan woman's life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world.
Badriya Hassas, a gynecologist in Rabiya Balkhi Hospital in Kabul, says that shortly after being married, many young girls are admitted to hospital in a state of shock from serious physical injuries and psychological trauma. "Some of these girls suffer irreversible physical damage," Hassas tells RFE/RL. "They suffer from tearing and extensive bleeding. Besides, they usually come to hospital too late -- after massive bleeding, and in a state of shock. We have personally seen many such cases."
Sami Hashemi, an expert at UNICEF's Kabul office, says it is a tragedy for Afghan society that "young girls who are supposed to be thinking about toys, books, and cartoons are being forced to become wives, to serve their husbands' families, and bear a child."
The Afghan government has taken some steps to tackle the problem. The country has recently changed the legal age for marriage for girls from 16 to 17. Men who want to marry girls under 17 are not entitled to obtain a marriage certificate, although rights activists say many men simply do not bother with officially registering their marriages.
Local NGOs and their international partners have also started an awareness campaign throughout the country to promote children's rights to education and self-determination.
Mosleh says many parents, teachers, and local leaders take part in workshops and meetings organized by her and other NGOs in Afghanistan's remote towns and villages. But she and other activists harbor few illusions: It will take years, perhaps a generation, to root out the tradition of child marriages.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report)