KABUL, Afghanistan — Packing umbrellas and spare sandals, Afghanistan’s quixotic band of peace marchers invaded the heart of Taliban territory earlier this month and finally succeeded in their long-delayed quest to sit down with the Afghan government’s enemy.
Face to face, over innumerable cups of green tea and hard, round slabs of bread, they found the enemy looked much like themselves and had the same desire for peace that had brought these 30 marchers on their arduous and risky mission.
But the marchers also said they found that both the Taliban and the Afghan government had the same sort of leaders — unwilling to make the kinds of compromises that could end the war, now in its 18th year, even when their followers wanted it.
“Their leaders told us that we could persuade their fighters about peace, but their leaders will never change their minds until their demands are granted,” said the marchers’ leader, Iqbal Khaibar. “They’re just like government leaders who insist on fighting.”
American-led peace talks with the Taliban are at best stalled, with the sixth session ending more than a month ago after only a couple of days with no new progress. The chief American negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, expressed understated disappointment that “the current pace of talks isn’t sufficient.”
Then the insurgents refused to meet with an Afghan delegation in Qatar that they viewed as essentially representing the Afghan government, which the Taliban consider illegitimate and have refused to negotiate with. Subsequent talks with Afghan political figures in Moscow led only to a repeated rejection by the Taliban of government offers of a cease-fire.
That left the marchers’ People’s Peace Movement as, effectively, the only effort still gaining ground.
Ignoring government warnings not to go and Taliban warnings not to come, the marchers set out from the Helmand Province capital of Lashkar Gah on May 30 and walked north toward Taliban front lines.
It was still the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, so they were fasting during daytime, when temperatures exceeded 105 degrees — their umbrellas were for protection from the sun. They said they marched for five days until they reached Nawzad District, which the insurgents control. They slept in mosques at night, getting up at 2 a.m. for breakfast, which had to be consumed before June’s early dawn.
The peace marchers are a diverse group. Their leader, Mr. Khaibar, is a pharmacist. One is a 10-year-old whose mother was killed by a mortar shell. Another is a poet who was blinded by a Taliban bomb. Others are farmers and day laborers, students and businessmen. None was in government.
This was the peace marchers’ second attempt to reach Taliban lines.
Their movement began last year as a sit-in and hunger strike in response to a horrific Taliban bombing at a wrestling match in Lashkar Gah. When the protesters tried to organize a peace march in the direction of the Taliban, the insurgents said they should first take their complaints to the Afghan government and its American and other foreign backers.
In response, the marchers hiked for 30 days, across some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous territory, to reach the capital, Kabul.
For a while they thought their efforts were being rewarded, as the first high-level peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban began last year, with hopeful signs of early progress in January — an American proposal to withdraw in exchange for a Taliban promise to disavow terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.
When talks faltered last month, though, the marchers decided they would try again, defying Taliban orders that they get formal permission first. The insurgents warned that they could not protect the marchers from government airstrikes or other attacks, and they were suspicious that the group might be followed.
When the marchers finally encountered four Taliban fighters in the village of Nawzad Rood, it was nearly dusk. They were, Mr. Khaibar said, “people just like us. They had the same faces, the same beards, the same clothing and the same customs.”
They are all ethnic Pashtuns, and the Pashtun code of conduct, called Pashtunwali, demands that any traveler seeking refuge, even an enemy, must be treated as a guest. The marchers were banking on that.
The insurgents, unsurprised to see them, produced a document that listed the peace marchers’ names, and checked them off against it to make sure they were the real people. Their hosts were nervous, glancing at the sky and eager to leave, ordering the marchers into cars to drive to a safer place.
Then suddenly, they stopped. Everyone realized the sun had set, so it was time for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daylong fast, and they drove back to the mosque to eat.
The insurgents shared what they had, canned red beans and buttermilk, and local residents brought fresh bread, the marchers said.
“They apologized for the buttermilk not being cold enough, as ice was very expensive and hard to find,” Mr. Khaibar said.
They got back on the road, driving for four hours until the insurgents stopped outside a mud building. Inside were about three dozen members of the Taliban. They were suspicious and hostile at first, Mr. Khaibar said, but that changed after a while.
“The Taliban listened to us for an hour, as I described how badly people were suffering from the ongoing war and how thirsty they are for peace, and I provided examples from our months of journeys on foot across the country,” Mr. Khaibar said.
He described how he was motivated by the wrestling match bombing last year, whose 14 victims included a 10-year-old boy who had made a living by selling seeds and nuts to spectators. Mr. Khaibar had pitied him and encouraged his friends to buy from him. After the bombing, the boy had no recognizable remains to identify.
Mr. Khaibar said he felt the marchers were making real progress with the three dozen young men, whom he described as rank-and-file fighters. “Their behavior completely changed: They brought fruit juice, watermelon and tea for us, and they seemed to be convinced about peace,” he said.
Then the activists were taken to insurgent leaders, who stuck with the official line of no cease-fire until the withdrawal of foreign troops, the marchers said.
By then they were deep inside Taliban territory. Listening to radios or playing music was banned; women were never seen. Food was spartan; few meals featured meat. Drink was often just a pail of water fetched from an irrigation canal. To avoid airstrikes, the fighters were constantly on the move, rarely sleeping twice in the same place.
The Taliban made no effort to hide from the marchers the opium poppy cultivation and heroin labs in their territory. Mr. Khaibar said they could tell the poppy farmers from the drug smugglers: “The farmers were all skinny and the smugglers were all fat.”
The Taliban explained how they collected taxes on them all, and argued that drug trafficking was not anti-Islamic because they used the tax revenue for jihad against foreign invaders.
They even let their guests visit a Taliban jail in a farmhouse, where they held a large number of captured police officers, the marchers said. The insurgents apparently wanted to show off how well the prisoners were treated, so the jailers had first removed their leg irons — though the police officers displayed for the marchers the bruises the irons had given them.
Zamarai Zaland, 28, a professional bodybuilder who joined the peace march early, said that before the marchers left on Thursday, one of the Taliban guards came to him and whispered that he wanted to join their peace movement.
None of them had any illusions of a breakthrough, but it was a start, the peace march leaders said after returning to Lashkar Gah by car.
“They all wanted peace, and they were thirsty for love,” Mr. Zaland said. “When we come back, we need to show them the same.”