As thousands paid their respects this week to a slain northern Afghanistan police commander, a top lawmaker sounded an ominous warning: He and three other minority faction leaders are on a Taliban hit list and could be next.
Conflict between the Taliban — who come mostly from the country's biggest group, the Pashtuns — and members of its ethnic minorities is nothing new in a nation whose history is scarred by bloody civil strife. But rising ethnic tension is jeopardizing efforts to make peace with the Taliban after nearly 10 years of war.
Minorities already worry that President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, will make too many concessions to their Taliban enemies to shore up his Pashtun base and craft a peace deal to end the war. Whatever support for peace talks that Karzai has won from minority groups is likely to erode if militants continue to pick off their leaders one-by-one.
Gen. Daud Daud, an ethnic Tajik, was the fifth minority leader slain by militants in recent months. He was killed Saturday in one of a series of high-profile bombings insurgents have been carrying out across the nation. His death comes just weeks before the U.S. is to start withdrawing some troops.
The July U.S. drawdown — the symbolic start of a gradual withdrawal of international forces over the next several years— already had spawned fears the country will descend into civil war when foreign troops leave.
"There are some hands who are trying to split people from each other," Karzai said at a news conference Tuesday. "There are hands who are trying to separate our homeland and create a confusing situation where you cannot tell the difference between enemy or friend."
"We, as the Afghan nation, must be very smart and clever as we go forward, but we must keep our unity."
'Revenge of our martyrs'
Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, who has been working to mend ethnic divisions in the nation's security force, has stressed the need for a strong force that represents all faces of Afghanistan. A unified force is needed to shoulder security at the end of 2014 when international combat forces are scheduled to be gone or in supportive roles, he says.
Currently, 44 percent of Afghan policemen and soldiers are Pashtuns, 43 percent are Tajiks, Hazaras or Uzbeks, and 13 percent are from other ethnic factions, according to the U.S.-led coalition's training mission.
Mohammadi, a member of the minority Tajik group, issued his own warning to militants at Daud's funeral on Sunday.
"We will take the revenge of our martyrs," he said. "You will not be able to reach your goals by killing our heroes."
Halaluddin Halal, former deputy interior minister, said in an interview that the Taliban targeted Daud because he had strong relations with local Afghan commanders throughout the north and was keenly aware of the insurgents' tactics. "He will be very difficult to replace," Halal said.
Karzai needs minority groups — loosely known as the Northern Alliance — to back his efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. That's because, while Pashtuns make up 42 percent of the population, collectively the minority Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other smaller groups outnumber them. Without minority support, the country risks a de facto partition into a Pashtun south and a "minority" north.
Northern Alliance leaders say they want peace, but they are afraid of any deal that would give too much power to the very Taliban insurgents they fought in the 1990s. Some ethnic factions have started taking weapons out of mothballs in preparation for a fight if Karzai signs a peace deal that allows the Taliban to wield excessive power.
The death of Daud, who oversaw police activities in nine northern provinces, was just the latest to dent the ranks of the Northern Alliance leadership. Daud had also served as governor of Takhar province, deputy interior minister for counternarcotics and was a former bodyguard of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. News of his death stunned Fazel Karim Aymaq, a member of Karzai's peace council set up to facilitate talks with the Taliban.
"Daud was my friend. He was a very proud, brave person. Nobody can replace him," Aymaq said in his living room, where a photograph showed him standing with Massoud, the slain Northern Alliance commander.
Aymaq condemned militants' efforts to upset the peace process. "With the killing of these high figures, the Taliban think it will be a more open atmosphere for them to enter into talks," he said.
Four other leaders affiliated with the Northern Alliance also have been slain.
The Takhar provincial police chief, Gen. Shah Jahan Noori, died in the same blast as Daud. Mohammad Omar, the governor of neighboring Kunduz province in the north, was assassinated last fall in a bombing inside a mosque. Gen. Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili, the provincial police chief of Kunduz province, was killed by an insurgent bomber in March. A month later, a suicide bomber killed Gen. Khan Mohammad Mujahid, who was police chief in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar province in the south, but was aligned with the alliance.
Worried about Daud's death, Karzai cut short a foreign trip and rushed back to Kabul. He condemned the deadly attack and blamed it on outsiders, a veiled reference to Pakistan. The Karzai administration has repeatedly accused its neighbor of sheltering and assisting militant groups that stage attacks across the border into Afghanistan.
"Nobody in Afghanistan would carry out such an attack," Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omar said. "Evidence shows that these operations are being planned outside of Afghanistan."
Lawmaker Yunus Qanooni, a Tajik and former speaker of the lower house of parliament, said at Daud's memorial service Monday that insurgents now are threatening to kill him and three other prominent members of ethnic minorities. He did not say how he knew about the Taliban hit list.
He identified the others as First Vice President Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim, an ethnic Tajik; Atta Mohammed Noor, a Tajik and powerful governor of Balkh province in the north, and Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister, who has both Tajik and Pashtun roots.
In a statement eulogizing Daud, Abdullah said his friend of more than 26 years did not always have the cooperation of the Karzai government and was "subject to unjustifiable pressure" even as he worked to shore up security in the north, which has declined in the past two years.
Amrullah Saleh, a Tajik who was Afghanistan's top intelligence official, and Karzai both accuse Pakistan of sponsoring efforts to foster ethnic division in Afghanistan. But Saleh also criticizes the president for not articulating what kind of deal he foresees with the Taliban.
"I'm not saying that there shouldn't be talks," Saleh said at a political gathering last weekend in Kabul.
But he added: "What is the end state? ... The end state should be a pluralistic Afghanistan."
He said the Taliban should be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated into society. And they must abide by the Afghan constitution.
"If they come to dominate us through the barrel of the gun, we will resist," he said.
Associated Press Writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.