PARWAN // The plains of Parwan stretch across the horizon north of Kabul, eventually leading to the snow-peaked mountains that are the gateway to northern Afghanistan. In a country that descends deeper into conflict with each passing week, this beautiful province has bucked the trend and been relatively peaceful throughout the turmoil of the last few years.
But how long it can remain so might just hang on whether the Taliban's resurgence leads the movement back into power. "As we have already resisted them, again we will resist them," said Gen Mawlana Abdul Rahman Sayed Khili, Parwan's chief of police. Throughout much of Afghanistan the Taliban regime that ruled from 1996 to 2001 is associated with law and order and stability, largely because of the violence and unrest that have replaced it.
Here in Parwan, however, fond memories are hard to find. Instead, people say they suffered even more than during the long and bitter Soviet occupation. "When the Taliban and the terrorists came to our land it was the worst time. They cut down our trees and gardens, blew up our irrigation systems and buried our young people in mass graves. Our women and elders were made to leave by force," said Gen Sayed Khili.
Parwan was the front line in fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in the late 1990s. Both sides have been accused of committing countless atrocities in the years since, but while members of one movement hold a number of official posts in the government today, their old adversaries are also threatening to return. Insurgents now stage regular attacks in the surrounding provinces of Kapisa and Baghlan as momentum continues to shift in their favour.
One way or the other, most Afghans are resigned to the Taliban regaining power. Some believe it will be through armed struggle, the rest are hoping a political deal can be struck and the spoils of government shared. Neither of these scenarios appears to sit comfortably with Gen Sayed Khili, a close ally of the late Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud. He believes the Taliban are again in the ascendancy because "our neighbours Pakistan and Iran are giving them the water to grow".
It is a common accusation levelled at the insurgents, whose staunchest critics believe Islamabad in particular has been using them in a proxy war to seize control of this country. The detentions of a number of high-level Afghan militants in Pakistan have done little to alter that suspicion. A second former Northern Alliance commander here, Fazeluddin Ayhar, had more than 4,000 men under his control during the fighting of the late 1990s. He recalled that the rise of the Taliban had initially been welcomed.
"But when people saw that [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency] were giving them support and equipment, they stopped being with them," he said. "Now the people need peace, they need justice, they need stability so they will also support the Taliban. But when they see their actions, again they will fight them." In the face of record levels of bloodshed, the international community has increasingly stressed the need for talks with the rebels if the violence is to end.
David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, recently said Afghans should "pursue a political settlement with as much vigour and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort". He criticised the Bonn conference of 2001 that had excluded the Taliban's support base when laying the foundations of the new government in Kabul. The problem is that while many Pashtuns in the south of the country feel the US and its allies gave the Northern Alliance too much influence, men such as Mr Ayhar think exactly the opposite.
"When the government and the international community [de-armed] the Mujahideen and cleaned away their ideas, the Taliban rose up," he said. Although Mr Ayhar backs negotiations with moderate insurgents, he warned he would fight any Taliban attempt to forcefully return to power. Indeed, it is this prospect of a new civil war that often stops Afghans from calling for the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops.
But not all ex-Northern Alliance members are quite so stark in their assessment of the future. Sakhi Mohammed Mosbah, another former guerrilla commander, was confident that history would not repeat itself. "I am sure when the Taliban come they will take our people in their arms because we are the only ones who do not support them. They understand they made mistakes and we are unhappy with them," he said. "I am a Muslim and the Taliban are Muslims. I am an Afghan and the Taliban are Afghans. This land is mine and this land is the Taliban's."