The Freelance Peacemaker

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
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
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
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
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.

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