KABUL, Afghanistan — 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 Sunday, 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, again invading a major city, Kunduz, on Saturday and the city of Puli Khumri on Sunday.
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 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.
Sitting in a leafy yard in Kabul, he insisted 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 extraordinary cease-fire during the Muslim 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. The Taliban have warned Afghans to boycott the election, calling polling stations targets.
The developments anger President Ashraf Ghani, who seeks a second term and a strong mandate so the government can better negotiate with the Taliban, who already portray a U.S. troop withdrawal as their victory.
Weary Afghans appear more flexible, calling for peace above all.
Some also are skeptical that a 15-member negotiating team for intra-Afghan talks, yet to be announced by the government, will be representative of civil society and women, whose fate is especially fragile. The Taliban are expected to have power to strike people from that list.
"These are the same old people," another member of the peace movement, 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."
A collapse of talks could bring another civil war, some analysts and Afghans say. The country has been ravaged for 40 years starting with a decade-long Russian occupation in 1979, followed by bloody infighting among mujahedeen who had received U.S. backing against the Russians. After a pro-Communist government fell and four years of civil war killed some 50,000 people, the Taliban took power in 1996. Now some of the former mujahedeen who partnered with the U.S. to oust the Taliban are back in government.
Few people in Afghanistan remember what peace is like.
In Kabul, where street protests can be targets for attacks, concerns about the future are often expressed more quietly.
"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.
The stenciled flowers are placed near attack sites and some grieving family members join in, painting the names of the dead. Some 15,000 tulips have been completed.
Whatever the U.S. and Taliban discuss is their own business, Sharifi said, with the "real questions" starting when the Taliban sit down with regular Afghans for talks.
“We just have to find a way to live together,” he said of the moment when the Taliban and the Afghan government face the reality of each other’s existence. “We just have to come to our senses and say, ‘It’s enough. Let’s find another way.’”