Taliban defectors accept U.S. approach but wait for promises to be kept

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 26, 2010

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN -- As the Taliban commander in the Pusht-e-Zargon district of western Afghanistan, Abdul Wahab considered himself the law. A stolen sheep? He would choose the thief's punishment: often a gunshot to the forearm or calf muscle. He was careful to avoid the bone.

When salaries arrived from the Taliban leadership in Pakistan -- $100 a month per man -- he doled them out. Thirty fighters moved at his command. "If I asked them to jump in a river and drown, they would," he said.

Power and respect, this is what the Taliban meant for Wahab. A government job and protection from U.S. raids are what he thought he was getting when he agreed to lay down his weapons in November.

The United States, along with its NATO and Afghan allies, is trying to "reintegrate" militants like Wahab, offering them jobs on the assumption that they would rather earn a salary than spend their days fighting. The effort is a central pillar of the Obama administration's Afghan war strategy.

Taliban leaders scoff at that notion, saying their loyalists are waging a determined holy war against the infidel armies of the West and can't be bought off.

Interviews with Wahab and other fighters who recently left the Taliban as part of an Afghan government effort to lure them from the battlefield suggest that in many cases, U.S. policymakers may be on to something. Several ex-fighters said they joined the Taliban not out of religious zealotry but for far more mundane reasons: anger at the government in Kabul, revenge for losing a government job, pressure from family or tribe members -- or simply because they were broke.

"Nobody goes to the other side for fun," Wahab said. "There must be a pain in your heart."

In the complex world of Afghan loyalties, some had fought both for and against the Taliban. The most fearsome Taliban commander in Herat, killed by a U.S. airstrike in October, used to be the mayor.

The diverse strands of the insurgency make it difficult to generalize about the motives of fighters across the country. Insurgents in Herat probably differ from those elsewhere, particularly in southern Afghanistan, where Taliban leader Mohammad Omar's original following was born. But at least in this strategically important city on Afghanistan's western frontier, there's evidence of a deep pragmatism when it's time to choose sides.

"The Taliban here are not ideological," said Delawar Shah Delawar, Herat's deputy police chief. "These people have lost something. They feel ashamed that they have no cars, no bodyguards. How can they face people when they walk in the streets?"

Nobody fit this description better than Ghulam Yahya Akbari, who served as Herat's mayor in the early 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal. Back then, he was a staunch opponent of the Taliban, and he fled to Iran when the group came to power. After the U.S.-led invasion, he came back to run Herat's Department of Public Works and helped develop one of Afghanistan's most modern cities. But after a dispute with the previous governor, Akbari was fired in 2006.

"Ghulam Yahya was a good man. Anyone you ask will tell you," said Ahmad Yousaf Nuristani, the governor of Herat. "Most people say he was forced by the government to adopt this position. Maybe he had no choice."

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