By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 26, 2010; A01
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."
Following his firing, Akbari retreated to the picturesque orchards of his home village of Siyawooshan and recruited an army. Even though he was Tajik, he aligned with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, which sent money, weapons and a half-dozen explosives experts from Pakistan and Iran to train his followers, police officials said.
His fighters grew into Herat's most feared militia. They periodically launched rockets at the Herat airport, the United Nations compound or the American military base, including one that pierced the barracks, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. The fighters severed opponents' heads and financed themselves by demanding ransom from kidnapped businessmen.
"Bad people got along with him. Killers, kidnappers, their safe haven was with Ghulam Yahya," said Maj. Mohammad Rahim Panjshiry, director of counterterrorism in the Herat police department. "He started with five or six people and eventually had 300 to 400 people."
On Oct. 8, a U.S. airstrike killed Akbari and 22 of his fighters as they camped in a tent in Siyawooshan. He was buried next to a mosque he had built. A procession of thousands mourned his passing. For Herat, Akbari's death "was the biggest security event in a couple of years," one U.S. official said.
One of Akbari's subordinates was Sharif, a wheat farmer from the village of Adraskan. He had viewed the government as his enemy after his well ran dry. Elsewhere, the government helped maintain the irrigation system, he said, but his village saw no help. "Since the government has been established, it hasn't done anything for us. Nobody paid attention. Nobody came to see what our problems were," he said. "The farming stopped, so I decided to join the Taliban."
Another militia leader, Suleiman Amiri, fired from his job as a battalion commander in the Afghan army, took to the mountains in a government-owned Ford Ranger and amassed a militia.
"I wanted people to respect me. I wanted to have an honored life in this province," Amiri said. "Why isn't the government asking me for help? Why aren't the Americans asking me? Right now, if I ordered 50,000 families to die, they will die, or to live, they will live. They are under my command. Whatever I want I can do, but nobody is asking my opinion."
After Akbari's death and a purging of several top police and intelligence officials, the insurgency began to fray. Nearly 300 fighters surrendered to the provincial government, many drawn in by incentives offered by the local reconciliation office.
All of the former fighters interviewed said they were promised jobs if they gave up the fight, but for the past four months, the government has honored none of these commitments. Among the aid available are some food rations and the limited supply of USAID-funded "winterization kits" -- sacks of blankets and coal.
Many former fighters have taken up residence in downtown Herat, afraid enough of Taliban reprisals that they do not return to their villages. They idle away the days debating whether to return to the insurgency, as some already have.
Amiri, the former militia commander, has been offered a position as a district police chief, but the approval from Kabul has not come. He shares a house with dozens of his men who have no work and grow more anxious by the day. "I pay for 80 people out of my own pocket," he said.
For now, he is prepared to wait. "We will not leave the government until they say, 'We have nothing for you,' " he said. "If I have no choice, I have to become a Talib."
The prospects for Wahab, the former Taliban district commander who joined the insurgency after being fired from his job as a major in the police department, look no better. He rents a decrepit mud hut in a slum on the outskirts of Herat. On rainy days, the dirt floors turn to mud; on cold ones, to frozen earth. He must borrow money to medicate his five sniffling children. He can rarely offer hot food to his guests.
For the first three weeks after he left the insurgency in November, the Taliban's "shadow governor" in Herat called Wahab on his cellphone. He was a traitor, an infidel, no different from an American soldier, he was told: "As we kill them, we will kill you."
As a fighter for most of his life, Wahab does not feel qualified for a civilian job, but the Afghan security forces have offered him nothing. He refuses to go back to farming in his village of Salimi, unwilling to endure the jeers of his neighbors for falling so low. He might leave Afghanistan.
In the complex calculus of Afghan politics, he is one of many who have fought both against and with the Taliban. At least as a Taliban leader, he had respect. Now, he said, "we have nothing."
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.