KABUL—Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent attempts to placate the Taliban haven't made him many new friends among the insurgents. But they have definitely alienated some crucial old friends: the country's ethnic minorities, who have been a linchpin of Mr. Karzai's American-backed government.
After nine years of war, Mr. Karzai has little faith that coalition forces can rout the Taliban, his aides say. The insurgency, which is overwhelmingly waged by Pashtuns—Afghanistan's largest ethnic group—shows no sign of abating despite the surge in U.S. troop numbers. Instead, the Afghan leader, himself a Pashtun, is seeking a negotiated peace deal with the Islamist militants.
"If you just rely on the military—we've seen the result," explains Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, the senior presidential adviser for peace and reconciliation. "There is no purely military solution in Afghanistan."
American military commanders say they back Mr. Karzai's effort to court members of the Taliban, comparing it to the successful strategy in Iraq to win over Sunni Arab insurgents.
An Ethnic Jigsaw Puzzle
The Pashtuns have traditionally dominated Afghanistan, but other ethnic groups outnumber them in big chunks of the country. See where different ethnic groups primarily live and learn more about them.
But key leaders of Afghanistan's three largest ethnic minorities told The Wall Street Journal that they oppose Mr. Karzai's outreach to the Taliban, which they said could pave the way for the fundamentalist group's return to power and reignite civil war.
Mohammed Mohaqeq, a lawmaker and former warlord representing the 2.5-million-strong Hazara minority, endorsed Mr. Karzai in last year's presidential race, contributing to his reelection.
"We feel betrayed by the president," Mr. Mohaqeq says now. "It seems that what President Karzai pursues now is the Talibanization of Afghanistan. The only difference between him and the Taliban is that he sits in the presidential palace and the Taliban sit in the mountains."
Mr. Karzai's overtures, formally launched at a June peace conference where he called insurgents "brothers" and "dear Talibs," included asking the United Nations to remove Taliban leaders from the international sanctions black list and ordering the freeing of Taliban suspects from government custody. A separate government-sponsored conference of clerics in Kabul passed a resolution singling out insufficient enforcement of Sharia Islamic laws, the Taliban's key demand, as the obstacle to peace. This month, Mr. Karzai created a formal negotiating committee for talks with Taliban leaders.
These steps have been reciprocated so far with an intensification of bombings, assassinations and ambushes: The past three months were the deadliest for coalition forces since the war began, with 270 allied fatalities, almost as many as in all of 2008. The Taliban's official position is to reject any talks as long as foreign troops remain here.
Accounting for some 42% of Afghanistan's 28 million people, the Pashtuns have historically dominated the Afghan state. Their supremacy was diminished in 2001 when the Northern Alliance of ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias ousted the Taliban regime with American help.
Mr. Karzai—one of the few prominent anti-Taliban Pashtun leaders—became president a few months later, and won the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections thanks to support from key non-Pashtun strongmen.
That was then. Now Mr. Karzai is fighting to stay in power after the Americans leave.
Mr. Karzai, who protests vociferously whenever North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces kill Afghan civilians, earlier this year told Afghan lawmakers that he himself would join the Taliban if the U.S. kept pressuring him on issues such as corruption and electoral fraud.
His reconciliation tack reached a pivotal point in June, when he fired his minister of interior and his intelligence agency chief, both of whom strongly opposed any appeasement of the insurgents and of their backers in the Pakistani establishment.
The former spy chief, Amrullah Saleh, an ethnic Tajik who has since launched his own grass-roots political movement, says Mr. Karzai's lack of faith in the U.S. ability to turn around the war was undisguised.
"He doesn't believe NATO can defeat the Taliban," Mr. Saleh says. "He thinks he has given them the chance to end this war and they haven't, or they can't, or they don't want to. He thinks he's protecting himself by trying to talk to the Taliban and Pakistan."
Mawlawi Khabir, a senior leader of Jumbesh, a militia-turned-political party with a large following among the Uzbeks of northern Afghanistan, views such an accommodation as a betrayal of his community. "President Karzai has a clear ethnic agenda," he says. "He is trying to convince the Taliban and other fellow Pashtuns that he is on their side."
The gathering tensions in Kabul show just how differently the Afghan conflict is seen by the Afghans compared with the perceptions among Western officials. U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the chief commander of NATO forces here, still speaks of defeating the Taliban in their southern Pashtun heartland.
He says that the counterinsurgency strategy must be given more time, because the 30,000 additional troops ordered here by President Barack Obama last December are just about to deploy in full. Mr. Karzai's effort to reach out to the Taliban could make the U.S. military surge more effective, he explains.
Mr. Karzai's "reconciliation overtures, given the very clear red lines he has established, are logical," says Gen. Petraeus. "It is through those kinds of reconciliation efforts that the level of violence in Iraq was reduced dramatically, Iraq was given new hope, and the Sunni community became part of the future of Iraq instead of part of the problem."
But to an increasing number of Afghans, the war already appears irretrievably lost, at least in the south. The scramble has begun for a place in the sun in the coming post-American order—be it in the form of secret contacts with the insurgents, a rush for the fruits of corruption, or both.
The August trial of an Afghan general, convicted of conniving with drug lords and militants to smuggle narcotics across the frontiers he was meant to protect, provided an insight into this end-of-an-era mindset.
The border police chief for western Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Malham Khan, one of his subordinates testified, openly ordered his men to collaborate with the drug lords. His reasoning: "This government and system would not last long, and we should not antagonize people and make enemies here."
An aide to Mr. Karzai outlined why even the Afghan leader feels the need to hedge. "The president still hasn't lost hope," he said. "But he knows he must also prepare for the worst-case scenario."
This worst-case scenario, the aide explained, would be a premature drawdown of international forces, leaving Mr. Karzai at the mercy of his fickle Afghan allies and of the unreliable Afghan army that could splinter along ethnic lines once its foreign sponsors leave.
Neighboring Pakistan is also a potent part of the mix. Senior Pakistani officials in recent months have been touting in meetings with U.S. counterparts a possible peace deal under which the Taliban would lay down arms and renounce al Qaeda ties in exchange for federal-style control of the predominantly Pashtun southern and eastern Afghanistan, people familiar with discussions say.
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Few Afghans, however, believe that the Taliban, who already control ethnic Pashtun pockets throughout northern and western Afghanistan, would really stop the war after gaining the south and the east.
"There is no doubt the Taliban won't just remain in the south—they want the whole country to become an Islamic emirate and to implement their ideology," says Mohammad Natiqi, who heads the political committee of the mostly Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat party.
Unless it is dealt a decisive setback in coming months, the only thing the Taliban may be interested in negotiating with Mr. Karzai is how to secure control of the central government in Kabul, many Afghan and Western officials believe.
Some Afghans say that any such capitulation is likely to spark civil war. While popular in the Pashtun heartland of Kandahar and Helmand, the pre-2001 Taliban regime led by Mullah Mohammed Omar was widely resented in the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek provinces of central and northern Afghanistan, with their often more liberal social norms and different religious practices. Relatively few non-Pashtuns participate in the current insurgency.
British colonialists also mostly fought against the Pashtuns in their 19th-century attempts to subdue the country. Under the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, by contrast, all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups battled the foreign invaders.
Pashtun umbrage at the new political and economic power of the once downtrodden Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras helped fuel the renewed Taliban insurgency. But now, these non-Pashtun areas—many of them basking in relative prosperity because they haven't been as affected by violence—are unlikely to submit to a Taliban-dominated government without a fight.
"As soon as the international community pulls out, there will be a civil war, and many people will be slaughtered," warns Khwaja Mir, the head of the provincial council in the predominantly Tajik Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul.
The home of legendary Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood—assassinated by al Qaeda just before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks—the craggy, narrow Panjshir was one of the few parts of the country that remained outside Taliban control at the time. Here, anger with Mr. Karzai's outreach to the insurgents is boiling over.
"President Karzai's moves are dangerous, and are only meant to save his own position. We could have done the same thing and surrendered to the Taliban 10 years ago," Mr. Mir says in his office, which overlooks Mr. Masood's tomb. "If we had accepted the Taliban's ideology during Shah Masood's time, there wouldn't have been any problem between us. But we didn't, because we wanted to live a free life. We still do."
Former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance militias in Panjshir and much of the north, however, have been disarmed in recent years under a program backed by the West and Mr. Karzai, even as the Taliban gathered strength and encroached into northern provinces.
"You foreigners have taken away our weapons, but we'll still fight against the Taliban, even if we only have our slingshots," says 45-year-old Panjshir shopkeeper Sultan Aziz.
How successful such a resistance could be is unclear.
Saleh Registani, a former senior commander of the Northern Alliance and a key Panjshiri representative in the national parliament, says that this time around the Taliban, should they reach a political deal with Mr. Karzai, could easily conquer the entire country.
"The Taliban are very strong and well equipped—while the Northern Alliance is no longer the old Northern Alliance. It has no leadership, no weapons, no power. We cannot protect anyone anymore," Mr. Registani says. "If you're optimistic these days, you're either blind or not living in Afghanistan."—Matthew Rosenberg contributed to this article.
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com