Afghan Residents In The North Keep Taliban At Bay

Afghan President Karzai is expected to take the boldest move yet towards a negotiated settlement with the Taliban by naming a new Peace Council that would include militants. Renee Montagne travels north to Mazar-e-Sharif the capital of Balkh Province. Presumably, Afghans in this area would resist bringing Taliban members, who are willing to stop fighting, back in to the government.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The final 2,000 American troops headed for Afghanistan arrive this week, and they arrive at a moment of transition. President Hamid Karzai is announcing the members of a new Peace Council who are supposed to negotiate a settlement with the same militants who are fighting those American troops.

At this moment, our own Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan, and over the next few weeks, she's bringing us voices from around that country. And Renee has begun in northern Afghanistan.

Renee, why there?

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Steve, the North is a good place to begin because people there once fought most fiercely against the Taliban. Presumably, these are Afghans who would resist bringing Taliban - even those who are willing to stop fighting back - into the government.

Of course, there's been talk for months here, and in the international community, about negotiating with the Taliban. Still, just contemplating a deal - however far off - may be shocking to some.

And Steve, with that in mind, we headed to a province in the north, which was one of the last places to fall under the control of the Taliban back in the '90s. We stopped at a village called Qasl-ah-bad, where we found some men chopping wood and others gathered in front of a small mosque, reflected in a square, still pool of water. A shopkeeper named Mohammad, and a farmer named Taj, looked back at that time in 1997, when the Taliban first arrived.

MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) When they came to our village, they searched every house, every single house, and killed around 90 people from the small village.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)

MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) They normally killed men and women. They also killed animals, and they were shooting at everything.

MONTAGNE: So in a village so small, does that mean that everyone was touched?

TAJ: (Through translator) Yeah. Every family was touched. There's no doubt that the Taliban era was like the dark ages of our history, and we hope they don't come back. Now, everybody can live a normal life without any fear and concern. They live carefree, you know - the farmer works on his farm; the shopkeeper works in his shop.

MONTAGNE: This sense of safety these villagers speak of has become rare, even in northern Afghanistan, which until months ago, was considered quite safe. Now, Taliban fighters have moved in along with their shadow governments - except in this province, Balkh. It's managed to keep insurgents at bay, thanks - many say - to one man, the governor: Atta Mohammad Noor.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE)

MONTAGNE: The governor presides over the province from the capital, Mazar-e Sharif, which in recent years, has become a hub of commerce. Its well-paved boulevards and storefronts filled with goods suggest a prosperity that has eluded much of Afghanistan. Governor Atta says it's not as if militants haven't tried to create problems in his province.

MONTAGNE: (Through translator) The reason Balkh is relatively safe, compared to its neighboring provinces, is because of good management and a very close relationship with the local people. Their support has helped us maintain security and prevent conflict in this province. Unless a governor is clean and again, has support of the people, things could easily get out of control.

MONTAGNE: Governor Atta is not a man to let things get out of control. He's a former mujahedeen commander who fought the Soviets before turning warlord. It was just a few years ago that he disbanded his militia for the governorship. Now, in his well-cut suit and heavy, gold watch, there's still something of the warlord about him. In a grand hall at the governor's palace, beneath a crystal chandelier, Atta leans out from a gilded chair to accept petitions from his constituents. Two young men want funds to finish a school. Several elders need help in resolving a land dispute.

His critics are quick to say that as a businessman, Atta has used his office to make himself rich, but he's also proven to be a skilled politician in a world of tribal loyalties and complicated ethnic relations. And he's credited with curbing corruption, all of which has helped him to achieve the security that's allowed his constituents to prosper.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

MONTAGNE: We find a couple of them at the downtown bazaar. Aminullah stands in his stall, surrounded by brightly colored and glittering bolts of cloth.

AMINULLAH: (Through translator) We are lucky that we have a strong governor who will defend us against the Taliban. I think Governor Atta doesn't need armed men because he has the support of the local people in Mazar-e-Sharif.

MONTAGNE: Next door to Aminullah is another fabric seller, Ahmad Shah. I ask him about the arrival here of several thousand new American troops.

WERTHEIMER: (Through translator) Unfortunately, they've created lots of problem for us, and the more the soldiers in the northern provinces, the worse the situation will get. And there are even rumors that the Americans - or the foreign forces are deliberately trying to destabilize, you know, the north. There are - even there are some rumors that they're providing weapons and, you know, other logistics for the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: It sounds absurd. But versions of this rumor are going around, as people here scratch their heads trying to figure out why, at the end of nine years, the most powerful, modern fighting force in the world hasn't managed to prevail over the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: Do you believe any of the rumors that the Taliban are being, in some sense, helped by the Americans?

WERTHEIMER: (Through translator) I absolutely believe these rumors. Once they destabilized the north of the country, they can send more troops and create more bases - military bases here, and they can stay here forever. And that can be an excuse for them. But on other hand, we are lucky that we that have a strong governor like Atta, who is going to prevent such things from happening.

MONTAGNE: Atta, in fact, is so strong politically that he was the only governor appointed by Karzai who dared to challenge the president in last year's election by backing a rival candidate. So in recent days, one wonders what he would do were the Taliban to actually come back into the government.

MONTAGNE: Would you - would you rearm again, if it came to that?

MONTAGNE: (Through translator) If the Taliban are honest with their words and they're trying to reach a real peace in the country and respect our constitution, then we will welcome them. But if they are thinking of endangering what we have gained in the last nine years, then that will be unacceptable for our people.

Of course, we are concerned that if we go back to another war, we are disarmed. But it's going to be the responsibility of the international community, especially the United States, who wanted the Mujahedeen to be disarmed. We are against any peace negotiation which ignores a woman's participation in the government and daily life, and does not accept the budding democracy. We are against negotiations that do not accept freedom of speech, and do not pave the way for development and expansion.

MONTAGNE: Back in the bazaar, the fabric sellers who expressed such faith in Governor Atta's ability to protect them from the Taliban tell me they also embrace President Karzai's move towards reconciliation. It may seem a contradiction but for Aminullah, the reason why could not be more clear.

WERTHEIMER: (Through translator) For how long we should kill each other? We have been killing each other for a long time. We suffer - my generation suffered a lot, and I don't want my sons and my daughters to suffer as well. That's why I think this is a positive step by President Karzai.

MONTAGNE: You said your generation. How old are you?

WERTHEIMER: (Through translator) Thirty-two years old.

MONTAGNE: Thirty-two. So your whole life?

AMINULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

WERTHEIMER: (Foreign language spoken)

AMINULLAH: He says: Yes, I spend my entire life in war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we travel to the legendary Panjshir Valley, which was never under Taliban control. And we'll hear from a former intelligence chief who says it would be a very dangerous thing to bring back the Taliban.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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