The Freelance Peacemaker

Four years ago, an intrepid American mediator took on the Taiban -armed with only a deep belief that all conflicts have spiritual solutions

| January/February 2002

As we head to press, the Afghan cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul have fallen to the Northern Alliance. Both places figure in mediator Roger Plunk’s account of his effort to draw up a peace plan for Afghanistan. His insights have special relevance today, as Americans debate what role this country should play in Afghanistan’s future.
—The editors


Between 1979 and 1989 the Soviet war in Afghanistan resulted in one million Afghan deaths, five million refugees, and countless land mines strewn throughout the land that continue to injure Afghans every day. When the Soviets withdrew, Pakistan’s involvement in Afghan politics, and rivalries between ethnic groups, dragged the country down into a whirlpool of civil war. Since the mid-1990s, war has been raging between the Northern Alliance and the fundamentalist Taliban, causing tens of thousands of more deaths and plunging the country into severe poverty. The American-led war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda holds a promise for change. Out of the ashes of 23 years of war, Afghans hope that their dreams of peace and healing may finally be realized.
In October of 1997, I left for Afghanistan to provide my services as a mediator. My first stop was Pakistan, the stepping stone for foreign aid work in Afghanistan. From Islamabad, I took a bus to Peshawar, on the Afghan border. Nearing Peshawar, we passed through a town full of stores selling AK-47 assault rifles. An older man seated next to me presented a card that identified him as a 'Former Member of the Parliament of Afghanistan' and invited me to his home. His wife gave me traditional Afghan clothing to wear: baggy drawstring pants and a loose shirt that hung below the knees. She told me with a giggle that the Taliban didn’t like jeans. The AK-47s and the hospitality are two aspects of what I would see everywhere in Afghanistan: a dichotomy of fierce fighting and profound friendliness.
This was not my first trip to Asia as a mediator. After law school and a graduate law degree (LL.M.) in international and comparative law, I worked briefly in the U.S. State Department’s legal division. During this time I received an invitation from the Dalai Lama’s administration to advise them on the drafting of a new constitution for Tibet. This invitation struck a deep chord in my heart, and awakened a passion for human rights and conflict resolution that has never died.
In 1993 I traveled to Dharamsala, India, where I worked as the Dalai Lama’s constitutional adviser, drafting a model constitution for an autonomous Tibet. I then traveled twice to Beijing, for talks with Chinese officials on the Dalai Lama’s 'middle-way approach' for Tibetan autonomy. While working on Tibet issues in New Delhi, I got entangled in the dispute between India and Kashmiri political activists, and drafted an autonomy plan for Indian-held Kashmir that was presented to the Prime Minister of India. And in Myanmar (formerly Burma) I worked with lawyers to begin a dialogue between the military regime and Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy advocate who had been under house arrest for several years. As a single American meeting with various political leaders, I was often accused of being a CIA agent. However, I was just a private citizen doing mediation, pro bono publico (for the public good), a legal concept for charitable work. I had a passion for this work, and did not mind living on a low budget and getting little in return. To maintain impartiality as a mediator, I could not accept funding from the parties I mediated between. I got by with small amounts of funds from third parties, mostly friends. Thus I always traveled on a small budget, staying at a YMCA in Burma, a university dorm in Beijing, guest-houses in Afghanistan, and inexpensive hotels.
I do not claim my efforts had a major impact in the international arena, but I did manage to shake the tree and get my message across. I have learned that disputes are never just between two parties such as the Dalai Lama and China’s president Jiang Zemin. There was always a vast play of conflicting views between individuals, and between groups within groups. They wove a great web of complexity that boggled the mind. Yet in looking for solutions, I always gravitated back to simplicity. The reason is that solutions are invariably spiritual in nature: breaking old ways of thinking, appealing to the noble and sacred in people, and transforming hate into love and bigotry into compassion.
A global democratization is going on that transcends national borders. This process is increasingly in the hands of people, not just governments. It is, after all, the people’s world. Business leaders, housewives, writers, artists, academics, and various nongovernmental organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders) are invariably at the forefront of this change. Underlying this change is the deeper spiritual force that feeds all life. If we are to overcome the world’s seemingly insurmountable problems, we must reconnect with this force. We must, in some way, look inward and explore spiritual solutions to old problems.
My work as a peacemaker is very much connected to my spiritual life. In my childhood I often felt a presence around me, a grace. As I grew older I began to perceive this presence as a beautiful light, a 'spiritual sun' that has been with me ever since. This light shines in every soul. People may not see it, but it is there. Seeing it is just one way of experiencing it. It is not simply light, but pure Spirit. The theme of my life has been the dawning of the spiritual sun in my soul. Its light warms me, forcing me to grow and become attuned to its brilliance. It is a common theme. This same sun is dawning within all humanity, warming and forcing great transformation throughout the world.
My trip to Afghanistan started in Washington, D.C., when an Afghan friend from law school suggested that I apply my skills as a mediator to the civil war in Afghanistan. He arranged a meeting for me with the Afghan ambassador to the United States (representing the Northern Alliance). This led to a formal invitation for me to provide my 'services as an independent mediator among the warring parties of Afghanistan.'
A delegation from the ruling Taliban passed through town a short time later. When I met with them I found them friendly and very willing to talk. I mentioned my work in Tibet and Kashmir and offered my services as a mediator. Abdul Salam Muttawakil, the current Taliban foreign minister, scribbled an invitation to me on my own legal pad, referring to me not by name but simply as 'this American.'
With invitations in hand, I arrived in Kabul on an International Red Cross plane flying from its base in Peshawar, Pakistan. Kabul was in rubble. Years of civil war had devastated it, but when I arrived the situation was calm. The Taliban had taken it a year earlier, and the Northern Alliance had a policy of not shelling it. The first Taliban official I met with in Kabul was deputy foreign minister Stanakzai. He spoke excellent English and stated their position in no uncertain terms: The Northern Alliance had their chance to bring peace to Afghanistan, and they had failed. A coalition government between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance was not possible, he added. The only path to peace was to defeat the Northern Alliance in war.
This didn’t leave a mediator much to work with. The mediator’s first priority is to listen, and try to understand. The second priority is to make suggestions that may take root and sprout into policy. Most negotiators would have engaged Stanakzai in a heated discourse. I looked for common ground.
'I agree,' I said. 'A coalition government would not work. It would only be an invitation for a continued civil war.' His jaw dropped. He was astonished because Western policy endorsed a coalition government. 'There is too much jealousy and animosity between the leaders,' I added. Instead, I suggested a federal system, where the sides would continue to govern their own territories but jointly elect a national government with powers limited to foreign affairs. As confidence in the new government grew, they could delegate more powers to it. Because the Taliban had few foreign affairs links (only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized them at this time), it had little to lose.
My next meeting was with Mullah Mutaqi, a young, friendly official with close ties to Taliban chief Mullah Omar. (All Taliban leaders are called 'mullah,' meaning religious teacher, though their training is often very limited.) I presented Mutaqi with a peace plan that would allow the Taliban to represent Afghanistan at the U.N., but called for a constitutional convention to form a new government. The Northern Alliance officially represented Afghanistan in the U.N., and I knew they wouldn’t hand over that responsibility to the Taliban. But I thought they might be willing to share the task as a stepping-stone to reconciliation. My purpose was to see if there were any conditions in which the Taliban might relinquish power to a new government. So I presented the most favorable plan.
To my surprise, Mutaqi accepted all the points. As we left the meeting, his excited interpreter kept saying, 'He agrees! He agrees!' Mutaqi revealed his 'moderate' streak. He was one of the few Taliban leaders who later opposed the destruction of the Buddhist statues. I soon learned that the Taliban was divided into two camps. One camp wanted reconciliation, but was mainly comprised of Kabul’s mid-level civil servants. They tolerated Taliban policies, quietly complained about the poverty, sometimes joked about the religious laws, and supported every peace process. The stronger camp, headed by Mullah Omar, was committed to fighting until they controlled the entire country.
The Taliban movement is fueled by militant fundamentalists. Without their support, the Taliban regime would have no power. Traditionally, Afghan culture has been very tolerant of other religious traditions, not only of other Muslim sects, but also of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews. As in Kashmir, one reason for this openness was the popularity of the undogmatic mysticism of Sufism. The rise of militant fundamentalism reversed this trend.
Taliban members were doing their best to hold on to their cultural habits, including the violent imposition of their beliefs on others. But they were up against the wall. The wider world and the spiritual forces in their own souls no longer accepted this mentality, pushing them to their own destruction.
Because the Taliban was not interested in reconciliation, I turned my efforts to the Northern Alliance. The Alliance is composed of five to seven factions, depending on how you count them. Each is headed by a strong leader, most of whom have fought against each other at some point. But unlike the Taliban, the factions of the Northern Alliance had a genuine desire for national reconciliation. For a mediator, that provided a window of opportunity.
Afghanistan’s four major ethnic groups are the Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara. All these groups are represented in the Northern Alliance, but with limited involvement of the Pashtuns, who make up the Taliban. Its members are sometimes portrayed as 'war criminals.' Soldiers in the Northern Alliance have no doubt committed atrocities, and they should not be idealized. But atrocities have never been a matter of policy for the Northern Alliance. Most importantly, I found that they share a genuine desire for a government committed to democracy and human rights. They also understand that no single ethnic group can dominate Afghanistan in the future.My hope was to get the groups to agree on a common policy of national reconciliation. By doing so, the Northern Alliance could clarify their position both to the Afghan people and to the world. If the agreement generated enough support for a peace initiative, the Taliban might be forced to shift its policy away from conquest and oppression, to national reconciliation. This was the plan.
In practical terms, this meant I needed to draft an agreement that all members of the Northern Alliance would sign. This would be hard. In the end, I had nine signatures, including two from Pashtun leaders. The entire process took three months.
Most of the leaders were then based near Mazar-i-Sharif, a city of 2 million in northern Afghanistan near the Uzbekistan border. (The Taliban took it in August 1998, then lost it to the Northern Alliance in November 2001.) I began the process by meeting with President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the Northern Alliance. He approved my proposal and was eager for me to obtain the signatures. As president, he would sign last to give the document legal effect.
The key to a successful document was the backing of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the defense minister for the alliance and the central figure in the fight against the Taliban. Massoud was a great hero in the Afghan war against the Soviets. Because of his important role in defeating the Soviets, The Wall Street Journal once called Massoud the 'Afghan that won the cold war.' But for the Afghans, Massoud was known as the 'Lion of Panjshir.' Panjshir means five lions, so it translates as the lion of five lions.
At that time, Massoud lived in the strategic Panjshir Valley, hundreds of miles southeast of Mazar-i-Sharif, and flew me in on one of his helicopters (an old Soviet transport modified with red Afghan carpets and red-cushioned armchairs). Flying over the Hindu Kush Mountains in winter, I could see vast snowfields sparkling in the sun. There were villages in some of these remote valleys that may have gone centuries without interference from the outside world.
We took a long drive through the Panjshir Valley, an idyllic place divided by a crystal-clear river and surrounded by lofty mountains. Wrecked tanks and armored vehicles were scattered along the river’s bank, relics of the long war against the Soviets. They were also reminders of Massoud’s strategic brilliance, drawing the Soviet forces up the valley, then defeating them over and over again.
I was brought to a house and served a special dinner. After tea, around 10 at night, Massoud arrived unexpectedly, walking into the room with the presence of a king. He wore immaculate traditional civilian clothes, spoke politely, and laughed a great deal. We talked until midnight. Massoud had a clear vision for Afghanistan’s future as a unified country under a democratic regime.
Just months earlier, the Taliban had taken a lot of ground, but once again Massoud had halted them short of total victory. Speaking over satellite telephone, Mullah Omar had offered Massoud a sweet deal. Massoud called his council together for a discussion. Surrounded by his men, he placed his round wool hat on the table, pointed to it, and declared, 'As long as I have this much territory I will fight.' The Taliban were pushed back soon afterwards.
During my stay with Massoud, I often took long walks through the villages and countryside. When I viewed the poverty and scars of war during those walks, there was always a silent follower. Ever present was my 'spiritual sun,' soothing me, bathing everything I saw with its brilliance. The contrast was stark: the deep serenity and beauty of the spiritual light and the mud streets full of people living in a war zone, fearing the constant threat of bombs and invasion by the Taliban. The fear and pain of these people were real. But the spiritual light was also real. It gave me the inner calm I needed to do the work I set out to do. No one wants a distraught mediator. If I am to talk about peace, I should at least have something of it in my soul.
Massoud agreed with me on the need for a federal system in the country but thought the details should be worked out in a constitutional assembly. Before that assembly could be held, he said, the first step was to establish a strong central government to prepare Afghan-istan for democracy by collecting all the guns so that warlords would have no influence in elections. It took several meetings with him over two months to produce a document that he would agree to sign. With Massoud’s signature on the document, I returned to Mazar-i-Sharif to get the signatures of the other leaders.
This was the last time I saw Massoud. I was saddened to hear he had been assassinated by suicide bombers just two days before the September 11 attack on America. The news was not surprising. Massoud had told me on many occasions that he wanted to rid Afghanistan of all terrorists.
While I was staying in Mazar-i-Sharif, Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., arrived in Afghanistan with an entourage of American diplomats. The Americans were planning to meet with only a couple of Northern Alliance leaders, under the theory that they were the 'important' ones. This really upset the others, and I was asked to intervene. I advised President Rabbani to request the Americans to meet with all the alliance leaders in a single session. The Americans agreed, avoiding a diplomatic blunder.
The meeting took place in Sheberghan, about 80 miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif. It happened to be the base of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the prominent Uzbek military leader (and a central figure in military operations around Mazar-i-Sharif in recent months). He had a large palace with flower gardens and peacocks, not to mention a steady stream of visitors. I got his signature on the agreement the night before the Americans came to town.
By 10 the next morning, the streets were lined with people eager to greet the Americans, but Richardson and his party were late. Hours passed; the people remained standing under the sun. Finally, the entourage arrived at four, in three planes, two for diplomats and one for journalists. They made quite a contrast with my earlier arrival in an old rickety taxi.
In the eyes of most Afghans, America abandoned them after they had helped us win the Cold War. Even so, most Afghans remained ever hopeful that America would extend a helping hand. It was this hope I saw on so many faces when the American delegation arrived. Sadly, however, the visit turned out to be little more than 'photo-op diplomacy,' as a former U.S. congressman later told me. The Americans had done no groundwork to prepare for the talks. They flew away with CNN coverage, and an agreement for future talks, but with nothing for the Taliban and Northern Alliance to talk about.
With President Rabbani’s signature, I left Mazar-i-Sharif with a very different agreement than Richardson took away. Mine involved only the Northern Alliance, but it was genuine. All nine leaders who signed meant it. The title was fitting: 'Framework for Peace for the People of Afghanistan.' It was a first step toward reconciliation, flexible enough for all Afghans except the militant fundamentalists. One provision is highly significant in the light of recent developments: The willingness of the leaders of the alliance to surrender all power to 'impartial' persons who are neither members of the Taliban, nor members of the alliance.
I had three documents with the original signatures. One stayed with Rabbani. Another went to the office of the U.N. Special Mission to Afghanistan in Islamabad, and the third I dropped off in Kabul for the Taliban. Taliban minister Mullah Mutaqi was very impressed. He told me that it must have been a lot of work to convince nine leaders to agree to anything.
Before I left for America, Osama bin Laden gave his now infamous news conference declaring war on all Americans. Thus, the United States has been at war with bin Laden since 1998. It takes only one party to declare war in order for war to exist. His statement marked the pinnacle of militancy that had been flourishing in this area for so long. It revealed a deep spiritual sickness. In some way, it seemed as if he was raising his head to provoke a response and be killed. I was baffled when the United States did not respond effectively to bin Laden and the Taliban after the bombing attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa. It took the September 11 attack to change U.S. policy.
Because bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network is integrated with the Taliban, the U.S. has been forced to topple the Taliban in order to destroy Al Qaeda. The destruction of the Taliban regime also gives hope for a new, democratic Afghanistan to arise. Once the United States has won the war against the Taliban, the country must help win the peace for Afghanistan. This can be done by sponsoring a massive 'Marshall Plan' to rebuild the country, and by ensuring that the next government be formed by the collective will of Afghans, not by outside influences. The greatest power in life is compassion. A compassionate policy by America will give a new dimension to the concept of a 'super-power.'
Forming a new government in Afghanistan will not be easy. Members of the Northern Alliance do not always see eye to eye with each other. There are many Afghan political groups inside and outside the country that are not part of the Northern Alliance, but want to be part of the new government. And there are interest groups, such as women’s rights advocates, that must be given a voice. For this reason the Northern Alliance has invited me back to Afghanistan to contribute to the peace process by mediating between these various groups.
I have often reflected on what led me to engage in such large human problems. I remember the many summer days I spent at the beach as a boy. After hours fighting waves, I was exhausted and had to retire. The waves, unaffected by my efforts, kept rolling in as they had for millions of years. Looking back on my peacemaking work makes me feel just this way. I do not know what effect I have had on these issues, but at least I have made an effort. With renewed energy, I am ready to jump back in.
Roger Plunk is an international mediator and author of The Wandering Peacemaker (Hampton Roads, 2000), from which parts of this essay are adapted. He has formed Peace Initiatives, a nonprofit organization based in Iowa, to fund his peacemaking efforts.