Afghan government not keeping promises to insurgents changing sides

(Griff Witte - Twp)
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By Griff Witte
Monday, December 14, 2009

JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN -- His path marked by moonlight, with a Kalashnikov strapped to his back, Feda Mohammed hiked the well-worn trail through the mountains of Pakistan and into Afghanistan. He had traveled the route dozens of times before to attack U.S. soldiers. But this time, Mohammed was on a secret mission to surrender.

Lured to quit the insurgency by the government's promise of a job, land for his family and an end to the misery of fighting, Mohammed illustrated the hope of the top U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, for ultimately bringing about an end to the eight-year-old war. Programs to reintegrate former fighters into Afghan society, and perhaps even turn them against their brothers in the insurgency, are at the core of the Obama administration's new strategy.

Yet Mohammed's experience offers a cautionary tale: Four months after he gave himself up, the Afghan government has reneged on all its commitments, leaving him unemployed and his family of 10 with nowhere to live. Hunted by the Taliban and fearful of the U.S. military, he spends much of his time in hiding.

In a war in which everyone must pick a side, Mohammed regrets his choice.

"I'm stuck," he said one day last week, huddled beneath a tattered blanket to ward off the winter chill. "I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go."

Such cases are a major reason the United States and its allies are planning significant investments in programs aimed at using jobs and other incentives to peel Taliban fighters away from their cause.

"This touches every part of McChrystal's plan," said British Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons, who arrived last month to lead NATO's reintegration efforts. "I am absolutely convinced it can be done, and that the time is right. This is an opportunity the Afghan people aren't going to get again. Most of them realize that, and are keen to take it now."

Mohammed, thin and balding at 36, first picked up a Kalashnikov in the late 1980s when Soviet troops still occupied Afghanistan, and like many of his countrymen he has hardly stopped fighting since. For the past eight years, his enemy has been the Americans.

But this summer he was feeling exhausted by war, and he wanted to return to his native Afghanistan after years of living among insurgents-in-exile in Pakistan. One night in August, he tricked his commanders into believing he was traveling to Afghanistan to attack a U.S. base, and ended up defecting along with five of his brothers and their father. He thought the decision would give his family a fresh start.

"Now my children ask me why we can't go back to the way it was when I was fighting," he said, saying his family lived better while on the Taliban payroll. "I don't have an answer."

The men who recruited Mohammed to the government's side said they feel sorry for him, and for the dozens of other insurgents they have persuaded to stop fighting this year through promises they knew to be false.

"We have nothing to offer these people," said Haji Jan Mohammed, director of the government's reconciliation program for Nangarhar and Laghman provinces, in Afghanistan's volatile east. "We don't get any kind of assistance from the central government, so we promise them jobs but there are no jobs, and we promise them land but there is no land."

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