KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — For almost a year, Afghanistan's more than 30 million people have been in the awkward position of waiting as a United States envoy and the Taliban negotiate their country's fate behind closed doors.
An agreement on ending America's longest war, which the U.S. once hoped to reach by Sept. 1, could set a timeline for U.S. troops' withdrawal but also nudge aside this month's presidential election and open the way for a Taliban return to power. The militants continue their attacks: A massive car bomb Thursday — one of three last week — killed 12 people near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, including a U.S. service member and a Romanian soldier.
Without a say in their own future, Afghans' frustration is clear.
"We don't know what is going on but we are just so tired," said Sonia, a teacher in the capital, Kabul, who like many people goes by one name.
Reflecting the helplessness, a new television ad shows residents of all 34 provinces holding up pieces of paper that simply say "Peace." An art group in Kabul has begun painting concrete blast walls with tens of thousands of tulips, the national flower, as symbols of the civilians killed in nearly 18 years of fighting.
And a peace movement praised by Afghans for a daring march across the country warns that the Taliban, who control or hold sway over roughly half of Afghanistan nearly two decades after a U.S.-led invasion toppled them from power, are just as harsh as the days when women were forced out of sight and entertainment was banned under a strict form of Islamic law.
A 23-year-old member of the peace movement, Sayed Rahim Omid, shyly lowered his trousers and showed the Associated Press a still-painful wound on his leg where he said Taliban members at his hometown in southern Helmand province had whipped him with cables. Stop your activism, they told him last month. Who's paying you?
His family secured his release by swearing he would never speak out again. Then he promptly fled to Kabul. Several peace marchers have been beaten up, he and fellow members said. "I don't know how to trust them,"
Omid said of the Taliban, even as its leaders meet with the U.S. envoy, Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, in a luxury setting in Qatar and signal regret for their past ways.
Repentance about the present seems to be another matter. A former Taliban military leader in a province neighboring Kabul, Syed Akbar Agha, defended the beatings, saying the peace movement gives the impression the insurgent group doesn't want the war to end.
He insisted that the Taliban's tens of thousands of members will respect whatever is agreed to in Qatar, where the group has a political office. He pointed to last year's cease-fire during theMuslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr during which fighters and Afghans chatted and posed for photos. The Taliban later rejected a government call to try it again.
Better times are on the way for the Afghan people, Agha said, as some 20,000 U.S. and other foreign troops prepare to withdraw in return for Taliban assurances that Afghanistan won't be a haven for terror groups plotting overseas attacks.
"Good memories of the Taliban will help them trust the Taliban and support them," he said, but bristled when asked how the insurgent group could justify punishments such as stoning and cutting off hands. "Are you a Muslim?" he demanded.
Such talk puts Afghans on the defensive. "If the Taliban dream of ruling the country as they once did, we don't need them," said Kabul resident Mahbob Shah.
The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government and call it a U.S. puppet, raising serious questions about intra-Afghan talks meant to follow a U.S.-Taliban deal and work out the country's political future. Both sides should negotiate as "ordinary people" and form a new government, Agha said.
The belief that an interim government will follow a U.S.-Taliban agreement has led most candidates in the Sept. 28 presidential election, including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, to say they prioritize peace over a vote.
"Good memories of the Taliban will help them trust the Taliban and support them," said Syed Akbar Agha, who bristled when asked how the group justifies punishments. "Are you a Muslim?" he demanded.
"Anything you do in Afghanistan can be very dangerous," said Omaid Sharifi, whose ArtLords group paints tulips on blast walls in four cities to remember civilians killed in the current war.
"These are the same old people," Pachakhil Mawladad said of the expected negotiators. "One day he's an adviser, another day he's a driver, another day he's a minister and he's always running around the president. They cannot represent the Afghan people."
Sayed Rahim Omid lowered his trousers and showed a still-painful wound on his leg where he said Taliban members at his hometown in southern Helmand province had whipped him with cables. Stop your activism, they told him last month. Who's paying you?