In Afghanistan's Panjshir, disquiet over Taliban reconciliation

DALASANG, Afghanistan Thu Sep 8, 2011 8:17am EDT

U.S. Chinook helicopters leave after a security handover ceremony in Panjshir province July 24, 2011. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

U.S. Chinook helicopters leave after a security handover ceremony in Panjshir province July 24, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

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DALASANG, Afghanistan (Reuters) - At the entrance to Afghanistan's magnificent Panjshir Valley, an 84-year-old supporter of resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud said his village was fully armed to fight a resurgent Taliban to the end.

Like the Russians before them, the Pashtun Taliban have failed to penetrate Panjshir fortified by jagged cliffs and plunging valleys, coming as far as neighboring Nuristan province as they extend their control in the north and east of the country.

But as the beleaguered government and its Western backers reach out to the Taliban to explore prospects of a political settlement of the 10-year war, the sense of disquiet grows in the Tajik-dominated Panjshir region.

"We are all armed, we will not sit quiet. If the Taliban come, we will fight them everywhere," said Mullah Mohammad, pointing to his village in the valley floor by the side of the rushing waters of the Panjshir river.

It is from here that Massoud, or the Lion of Panjshir, fought the Taliban at the head of the Northern Alliance representing Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, until his assassination two days before the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

Soon after, U.S.-led coalition forces teamed up with the warlords of the Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban out of power from Kabul, and since then many have gone into government.

Ten years on, the cult of Massoud grows across Afghanistan but especially in his mountain redoubt where the gates to the valley have been draped in black in memory of the fallen leader, killed when two men posing as reporters set off a bomb hidden in a video camera.

It is not clear how much of Massoud's old alliance still holds and whether the former regional backers such as Iran, India and Russia, who have deep concerns over reconciliation with the Taliban, are involved with the old leadership.

"Some remnants of the Northern Alliance have been openly skeptical and even hostile to the idea of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban," said Joshua Foust, an expert on Afghanistan at the American Security Project in Washington.

"Rumors have been flying fast and furiously the last two years or so that the Northern Alliance are rebuilding their militias."

FRITTERING AWAY GAINS

At Massoud's white stone monument on the top of a hill surrounded by barren mountains, a trickle of visitors, some from as far as the southern province of Kandahar, sit in silent prayer.

Afghan police patrol the narrow, winding road leading to the monument and the checkpoints and the mud houses are emblazoned with portraits of the legendary fighter.

For his supporters, it would have been a different Afghanistan had he lived and the gains that they made for the country are being frittered away by the administration of President Hamid Karzai.

"Afghanistan was delivered to Karzai because of the resistance fighters. The foreign forces only gave air support. But they have wasted the victory," said Ahmad Wali Masoud, a former Afghan ambassador to Britain who heads the Massoud Foundation in honor of his brother.

Massoud's assassination, which many believe was the work of al Qaeda as a gift to the Taliban, has itself not been investigated properly, Wali Masoud said.

He said British investigating agencies had informed him that 22 different terrorist groups across the world had collaborated in the plot.

"But it was never investigated properly. This government has not even set up an inquiry," he said, adding the role of some of Afghanistan's neighbors should also be probed. He declined to name them.

Ten years later, Afghanistan remains a deeply divided society and the administration risks accentuating the divides further by pursuing a deal with the Taliban without spelling out parameters, said Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and close associate of Massoud.

"We support reconciliation, but it has to be done in a transparent manner," he said.

"We want peace, but peace with dignity. There was also peace in Afghanistan during the Taliban in the 1990s, but it was peace of the graveyard. Is that what we want?"

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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