South Asia

Bin Laden death shows Afghan division

Former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh (right) speaks during a gathering in Kabul
Image caption Amrullah Saleh (at the podium) said he would take to the streets if the Afghan government entered into a peace deal with the Taliban

The chants "death to Pakistan, death to the ISI, death to those who are making deals with terrorists!" resound around a wedding hall in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

More than 2,000 Afghans, most of them from the country's northern provinces, are gathering to hear Amrullah Saleh. He was once a top spy and is now a known critic of Pakistan.

Mr Saleh climbed the stairs of the podium surrounded by a heavy posse of security guards and took the microphone.

"God is great!" he said addressing the gathering. "We won't let Pakistanis take our homeland."

The restless crowd - comprised overwhelmingly of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance supporters - cheered and waved, encouraging Mr Saleh to raise the pitch of his voice.

"We have not forgotten the burning of our homeland and the humiliation of the men and women of Afghanistan," Mr Saleh said - referring to atrocities committed by the Taliban.

"But, President Hamid Karzai, you are still calling them brothers. They are not our brothers but enemies."

The gathering stood up, giving policemen guarding the venue a tough time in restoring order.

'Peace and stability'

Once the head of National Directorate of Security, the intelligence agency of Afghanistan, Mr Saleh fought the Taliban alongside mujahideen leader and Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Mr Saleh is now a popular figure among some Afghans who are opposed to any peace deals with the Taliban or any role for Pakistan in the future of Afghanistan.

Young and old Afghans travelled hundreds of kilometres across Afghanistan's difficult terrain in the harsh summer to hear him.

Image caption Dr Abdullah (left) firmly ruled out talks with the Taliban

"Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar are two sides of the same coin," said 49-year-old Haji Yasin, a resident of northern Kapisa province.

"Peace with Mullah Omar is peace with the killers of Afghanistan."

Similar views were repeated by others among the crowd.

"Taliban leaders should come to Kabul, accept the constitution and if they win, they are very welcome [to stay in Afghanistan]," said Maneza, a 28-year-old female school teacher.

On the podium, Mr Saleh handed over the microphone to Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and challenger to Mr Karzai in the last presidential election.

Dr Abdullah began by welcoming the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

"Bin Laden was the killer of our national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud," he said as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Acknowledging their support, Dr Abdullah reiterated his opposition to any negotiations with the Taliban.

"Talks with the Taliban? Under what conditions? At what price?" he asked. "The Taliban joined the terrorists under orders from a foreign intelligence agency. Yet, everyday, you Mr Karzai, are apologising to them."

Dr Abdullah and Mr Saleh said that their supporters would take to the streets if the Afghan government entered into a peace deal with the Taliban.

"Giving the Taliban an ethnic identity is wrong," said a senior aide to Mr Saleh. "The Taliban are servants of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistani army. They should come to Kabul, than we can talk to them."

But two senior officials close to President Karzai accused Mr Saleh and Dr Abdullah of pandering to their political constituency.

"President Karzai is working for peace and stability in Afghanistan. He has always spoken out against the ISI and Pakistan's involvement,'' one of the officials said.

"Amrullah Saleh makes it sound as if the Taliban have came from Mars," the other said.

"If Amrullah and Abdullah have a better solution other than fighting, they should come and share it with us Afghans. President Karzai will work for peace, no matter what the obstacles are," he said.

Experts say the killing of Bin Laden has provided the Afghan government and the Taliban with an opportunity to negotiate. The Afghan government says that it has been quick to realise this.

Mr Karzai has already constituted a Peace Council which will be led by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani - who like Dr Abdullah and Mr Saleh is a senior member of the Northern Alliance - to explore the possibility of a deal with the insurgents.

But in a country where people have carried the scars of three decades of war, the road to peace is unlikely to be anything other than long, winding and rocky.

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