In the battle for Taliban minds, a new spokesman steps forward in Zabul province
By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 19, 2012
QALAT, Afghanistan - Hematullah, who commanded a small band of Taliban, fighting Afghan and coalition forces here until three months ago, is about to launch a new career: poster boy for the government.
Few insurgents here have defected under the high-profile, multimillion dollar “reintegration” effort to drain the insurgency of manpower with carrots rather than sticks. Since the program launched in Zabul province nine months ago, Hematullah — or Hemat, as he prefers to be called — is the only militant leader to switch sides.
He did so with a promise to help persuade other militants to quit the fight, telling officials in October, “If the government hides me, I can do a lot to bring those people in.”
Since then, the lanky, black-bearded former militant has recruited three of his former 16 fighters. Seven militants from another cell in the province signed on to the program as well.
Though they account for a small fraction of the insurgents lurking in Zabul — coalition commanders say there are as many as 500, while the Afghan governor says there could be 2,000 — officials aren’t dismissing them. Before Hemat’s defection, the program had drawn only two militants, both low-level fighters without much sway in the insurgency.
“Since this was our first real group, it’s a start,” said Maj. John Matthews, a U.S. Air Force officer and “Afghan hand,” or cultural immersion specialist, who manages the U.S.-led coalition’s facilitation of the program in Zabul.
With roughly $140 million from international donors — including $50 million from the U.S. — the Afghan-run “peace and reintegration program” has had better results in the relatively peaceful northern and western provinces, according to internal updates prepared by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force. More than 30 percent of the nearly 2,500 who had reintegrated countrywide through mid-September 2011 came from Badghis province alone.
Afghan officials in Zabul say the slow start is partly because the program started later here than in the quieter provinces, and also because one of the primary reasons young men here joined the insurgency — unemployment — hasn’t been adequately addressed.
There are so few jobs in the province that many young men go to Pakistan to work in mines, where Taliban recruiters woo them with promises of money and prestige, according to Zabul Gov. Muhammad Ashraf Nasari. “So when they go to Pakistan, they are joining the Taliban.”
But many young men have simply gotten tired of war, according to Matthews.
“A lot of them are sick of fighting, they are sick of listening to Pakistan, because that’s where all their orders are coming from,” he said. “They’re sick of fighting Afghans.”
What’s hindering them from siding with the government is a lack of trust that the government can protect them from reprisal attacks by militants who haven’t left the fight.
“A huge part of Afghan culture is trust. And a lot of these fighters (in Zabul) just don’t trust that the current mechanism would keep them safe if they were to come in,” Matthews said.
Nasari agreed: “It will take time.”
All are banking on Hemat to turn the tables on the job and security concerns.
The province’s top reintegration official, Abdul Ghani Tokhi, petitioned the government to give Hemat a high-profile job with the province’s Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, a prestigious position that backs the government’s claim that it has something to offer reformed insurgents.
Matthews said Hemat was given the job, noting that “once we get these guys through the system, [and if] we publicize that right, I think we’ll have more” wanting to reintegrate.
He acknowledged that some might view Hemat’s appointment as a reward for bad behavior.
“But I think to get a lot of the other fighters to see that this program is legit, you have to throw somebody a bone and give them a job that means something.”
It might draw the attention of fighters who aren’t driven by ideology, which has the potential to sap significant manpower from the insurgency. An unclassified internal brief prepared by the International Security Assistance Force’s Force Reintegration Cell in September stated that 85 percent of the “armed opposition” members are not driven by ideology and fight close to their homes.
That certainly describes Hemat, who joined the insurgency six years ago because, he said, “the government wasn’t active, didn’t offer anything to the people” — even protection.
“Everybody had their own militia, their own jails and maintained their own interests,” he said through an interpreter. He wound up joining the Taliban to protect himself from everyone else. “The situation made us join the insurgency.”
Now, the situation is different.
“The Afghan government has taken good steps,” he said. “There are some mistakes, but maybe in the future we will solve those, too.”
Among those “good steps,” he said, is the peace and reintegration program.
Each fighter entering the program has to go through a two-step verification process to determine that he is a bona fide insurgent and to ensure that he has not been accused of other crimes. Once approved, he is given amnesty for his role in the insurgency, held under government protection for three months, and over that time given a monthly stipend of about $120, which may be paid in cash, food or other items.
Their villages are also rewarded for allowing them to return home, with up to $50,000 in small-scale projects per community. Program officials like Matthews can also spend up to $200,000 on district-level projects — buildings, agriculture or vocational and literacy training.
In return, fighters have to swear fidelity to the government and swear off violence, though they’re allowed to keep their registered weapons — partly as a means of protection from reprisal attacks by other militants.
“The process isn’t a surrender process,” Matthews said, but is designed to enable insurgents to switch sides while maintaining their dignity.
He and others acknowledged that once fighters have gone through the program, there’s a possibility that some will return to the insurgency.
Previous Afghan peace programs did little more than ask militants to turn in their weapons in exchange for cash or other rewards. Many did so when the fighting season died down with the onset of cold weather, only to rejoin the insurgency when fighting resumed in the spring.
Mohammed Hashem Grani, a provincial peace council member who has a say in who gets admitted to the program, said that’s unlikely to happen with the current plan, under which militants are essentially re-indoctrinated into Afghan civil society through months of oversight and training by government security personnel and officials.
“If some insurgents [such as Hemat] join us, he cannot go back,” Grani said. “The insurgents won’t believe him. They’ll think he’s working for us.”
Hematullah, left, a former low-level Taliban commander, and Abdul Ghani Tokhi, head of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration in Afghanistan's Zabul Province, talk with Afghan government officials before a meeting about Hematullah's application to enter the Afghan peace program.
MATT MILLHAM/STARS AND STRIPES