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Afghan promises to insurgents often empty
Incentives to fighters to switch sides are key to U.S. plan

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."

When the former fighters learn they have been deceived, the results are predictable.

"In a lot of cases, they go right back out and pick up their weapons again," said Haji Sana Gul, a senior adviser to the reconciliation campaign here.

Najibullah Mojadidi, the Kabul-based deputy director for reconciliation, acknowledged the program's flaws but said it gets virtually no support -- either from the Afghans or from foreign governments. Over the past 4 1/2 years, he said, the program's total budget has been less than $3 million.

Barrons, the British general, said that is about to change.

The Bush administration displayed little enthusiasm for Afghan reintegration efforts, preferring to fight insurgents over trying to make peace with them, but Obama's strategists on Afghanistan have bet heavily on the idea. A recent Japanese government pledge of $5 billion in aid for Afghanistan is expected to be applied largely to reintegration efforts, and the United States has also vowed to commit money.

But the effort could be limited, since U.S. and allied officials here say the Afghan government will need to take the lead on the project. "We're not going to put one tiny foot ahead of where the Afghan government wants to go with this," Barrons said.

Still, Barrons and other international officials here have definite ideas of what they want the program to look like. Their vision is inspired by the example of Iraq, but not directly modeled after it.

There, the United States paid Sunni tribal leaders to rise up against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups. Here, officials said, the situation is more complicated because of the many motivations for insurgents, including religion, ethnicity, poverty, illiteracy, the weakness and corruption of the central government and support from powerful elements in neighboring countries, especially Pakistan.

Barrons said the plan is not to pay former fighters directly, but rather to focus on cash-for-work programs that could give them an alternative source of income to the Taliban, which compensates its fighters relatively well.

Barrons also said the United States and its allies will work with the government to facilitate the creation of village-defense forces, which could be used locally to guard against Taliban encroachment and to supplement Afghan national security forces. But he said the groups would not receive direct military assistance.

The hope is that such efforts could, by this time next year, put a significant strain on the Taliban and ultimately lead to high-level reconciliation between the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Taliban leaders such as Mohammad Omar.

For the moment, such talks are considered unlikely because the Taliban has the momentum, and some here worry that it is too late for reintegration efforts to have any meaningful impact. If anything, the flow of fighters today appears to be toward the Taliban, not away from it.

Still, three decades of nonstop war in Afghanistan have created a desperate desire for peace, and U.S. planners are betting that some may respond to any offer they get to leave the battlefield behind.

Mohammed Abid, 24, abandoned the Taliban and joined the government's reconciliation program this fall. He represents, he said, a test case for about 70 other insurgents who are also sick of war, but want to know whether the government is serious about its promise to welcome former fighters back home.

So far, Abid said, he feels tricked, and no less resentful of the U.S. forces he thinks are occupying his country.

"History teaches us that all the other religions are against Islam, so as a Muslim, when I see the foreign troops, I can't help but feel hate," said Abid, his glare icy. "I feel it in every inch of my body."

With that, he wrapped a gray scarf tightly around his face, stepped out into the manic traffic of a Jalalabad morning and slipped away.

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