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In cozy tea houses, glossy television studios, plush elite drawing rooms crumbling mud houses and nomadic tents, Afghans are debating one question: who are the fifth columnists among them?

But in a country struggling with an expanding Taliban insurgency, meddling neighbors, a struggling economy and kleptocratic elites establishing who is a patriot and who is a traitor are no easy tasks and the debate goes on without conclusion.

Perhaps that task is more compounded by Afghanistan's recent history. Defined by two super intervention, internecine civil wars and resulting countless personal and factional feuds make it very difficult for Afghans to blame one individual or group to convince all Afghans about who are their heroes and who are the villains.

The current debate about the fifth columnists erupted after veteran Afghan Islamist leader Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf warned about the presence of Taliban sympathizers within the government ranks.

"If we are not hit from within, nobody from outside can defeat us. All these attacks that originate from outside [Afghanistan] also have launch bases in Zarghoon Shar near Kabul," the bearded figure told supporters in September. "The terrorist attacks that kill our women, children and elderly are being guided from inside Kabul."

The allegation opened a proverbial pandora's box as Afghans wondered how can Taliban sympathizers live and even plot devastating attacks with immunity in the Afghan capital?

Politicians made the usual noises. Most called on the government to seriously investigate Sayyaf's allegations, some dared him to back his allegations with evidence so that authorities can punish traitors.

But more revealing were perhaps the realization that few among the Afghans can genuinely claims to be independent as most factions and leaders courted have courted foreign sponsors during their country's tumultuous past and volatile present.

Abdul Wahid Taqat, a former communist intelligence official during the 1980s, claimed that similar to the fall of last socialist Afghan regime of Najibuallah, the current government ranks are brimming fifth columnists.

"No one pillar of the government is perfect. They are all full of the fifth columnists," Taqat told an Afghan tv talk show. "Look at the parliament. It is full of bad characters who specialize in subversion, have contacts with enemy networks and even engage in imposing corrupt officials on us."

Taqat said that even the Afghan cabinet is full of expatriate Afghans who are not loyal to their country. "They are associated with other countries and some are even foreign nationals. They have come here with just one suitcase and have no families here. They are not loyal to Afghan national interests," he claimed.

The debate intensified when the Taliban temporary captured a major city in northern Afghanistan. Supporters of the often competing factions in the Afghan national unity government used the fall of Kunduz to blame each and question the professional competence and patriotism of senior civil and military leaders.

Speaking in popular television talk show lawmaker Mohammad Daud Kalakani even offered to unveil the names of traitors if he is given guarantees that that they will be investigated and prosecuted for their alleged crimes.

"When the military commander abandons his trench or the governor and the provincial police chief leaves, what would you call them other than fifth columnists?," he asked.

Former communists and their former anti-communist mujahedin enemies perhaps offer the sharpest opinion over the issue. In the 1980s Afghan communists were much maligned for their alliance with atheist Moscow and helping the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

But the mujahedin alliance with Pakistan and the West, their infighting in the 1990s and the unprecedented corruption some of them allegedly engaged in after the fall of the Talban regime in 2001 gives former communists' ample ammunition to fend off their criticism.

"People are now accusing each other to be spies. Someone please tell me who is not a spy here?," former communist general-turned-politician Abdul Jabar Qahraman asked. "You were sitting with the fathers while I am now sitting with their sons," he added in an apparent jibe at mujahedin criticism of the current government's close ties with the West.

"Why are some people trying to clean their black fingers by rubbing them with others?" he asked. "All such talks are aimed at weakening the system. If some really has evidence they should share it with the authorities."

Millions of Afghans have died in nearly four decades of war and instability. Countless Afghans leaders, from all factions, have been killed by invading armies and terrorist attacks. But few individuals have been held accountable for their alleged crimes in transparent trails.

Former Afghan spy master Amrullah Saleh is against snowballing the debate over fifth columnists into a media war. He is urging all sides engaged in the debate to end it by sharing credible information about spies.

"Our enemies are advancing. And here instead of just talking aimlessly, we need to act," he told an interviewer.

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