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Afghanistan's new force for change

Supporters of Afghanistan's former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, wave green flags during a gathering in Kabul May 5, 2011
Image caption Many supporters turned up to a National Movement rally in May

Green is the colour of choice for many young and educated Afghans who are agitating for change. It is the colour adopted by a new grassroots political movement inspired by the popular revolts sweeping across the Arab world - but it is firmly opposed to talks with the Taliban.

Negotiating with the militants is the strategy championed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and silently endorsed by the international community.

So when the National Movement (known as Besij e Melli) held a huge rally in Kabul last month, attended by thousands of cheering supporters, there was serious cause for concern.

The movement is fronted by two former cabinet ministers-turned-critics of Mr Karzai: former foreign minister and presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and former intelligence minister Amrullah Saleh.

Although they head up different political groups, the two ministers say they want to campaign together to give a voice to ordinary people.

They say they are campaigning for justice and reform and that they are firmly opposed to talks with the Taliban.

Judging from the response online, those calls have struck a chord among certain sectors of the population.

Inspired by revolution

In the month since the rally a plethora of new sites have appeared online emblazoned with green, supporting calls for political change.

The internet may not be widely available across Afghanistan but it's increasingly popular among young urban Afghans in their 20s and 30s, who log on via their mobile phones.

Image caption Many Afghan facebook users have adopted the symbol of the movement

In the past few weeks these young users have set up a wave of new Facebook sites to support the National Movement.

Among them, is the Anti Taliban Movement, a Persian and English language site set up by Kabul university student Omar Ahmad Parwani.

Omar says he is inspired by the uprisings sweepings across the Arab world and how they found focus and support with educated youth online.

The Anti Taliban Movement already has 8,000 members and the number is growing every day.

In postings on the site people share their fears about the fragile state of their country and say it is time for change to come through the internet rather than the power of the gun.

"The government of Afghanistan wants to subject all of us to the Taliban again," says Omar. "We don't want our people to be drowned again. We want to save them."

Grassroots support

The internet has helped young Afghans link up with like-minded compatriots abroad.

Fahim Khairy, an Afghan graduate based in California moderates a mirror site for National Movement sympathisers in the United States.

"This movement is growing rapidly and it has just one rallying call," he says. "The Taliban are not our brothers, they are our killers."

In addition to the new sites, young Afghan Facebook users - like Ahmad Farid, from Mazar-e Sharif - are also changing their personal profile photos to include the colour green to show their support for the movement. And they're using their pages to post information about meetings and demonstrations.

"We all posted announcements on our Facebook pages to call on people to attend the gathering to defend their legal rights", he says. "We put green in our profile photos to show that we are moving towards a greener Afghanistan."

But Amrullah Saleh's National Movement organisation argues that this is not a movement confined to cyberspace and that it has real support on the ground.

"It has more support in remote villages of Afghanistan, where there is even no internet or a TV set. Amrullah Saleh travels across Afghanistan to bring people together who are tired of the situation. Facebook users may be only a few thousand, but where the strength of this movement lies isn't on the net," a spokesman said.

One unemployed man, Mohammad Qorban, in Takhar province, told me: "We are fed up with the current situation. I am jobless and no one cares... I am illiterate but support this movement."

So why have the calls for change taken hold so fast?

Afghan analysts say there are two factors at play. One is that people have grown tired of waiting for change and are starting to demand some action from their government.

The other big issue is the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Those who support negotiations with the Taliban see his death as a crucial opportunity for the talks process.

Those who are opposed to negotiations suddenly feel threatened. Amrullah Saleh himself says he is not against holding talks with the Taliban outright, but he says the Taliban must be recognised for what they are.

"Calling the Taliban brothers is a betrayal to the people of Afghanistan," he says. "They are not our brothers."

Dangerous divisions

The National Movement says it is planning more public meetings and demonstrations in the coming months if the government doesn't listen to its demands.

Image caption Amrullah Saleh says he is against talks with the Taliban

Some other prominent Afghans, such as the Uzbek leader Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, are also considering joining the movement. But if this happens, it would underline the dangerous divisions opening up in Afghan political life.

Although the Facebook generation say their campaign for change is open to all Afghans, it is clear from the language they speak that their appeal is mainly to Persian speakers.

There are few if any Pashto voices lending their support to the Green campaign.

Many of those involved with the National Movement have links with the Northern Alliance, which helped oust the Taliban. People in the movement say they have their worse memories of life from the time when the Taliban ruled.

The idea of negotiating with them is anathema. But at a time when both international diplomats and President Karzai are calling for compromise and consensus, it seems that many Afghan politicians and ordinary people are still not convinced that such compromise will guarantee them a place in the future Afghanistan.