An Afghan police unit cut a deal with insurgents to torch their own police station and defect, government officials said yesterday, in a bitter parody of the Government-led effort to bring rebel fighters in from the cold.
The incident triggered hours of pillaging as insurgents swept into a remote district south-west of Kabul, burnt government buildings, stole weapons, food and pick-up trucks, and escaped along with 16 policemen who were in on the plot. Nato and Afghan forces re-took the district in the volatile province of Ghazni the same morning.
The reintegration programme, one of the main planks in the Government's efforts to make peace with the Taliban, offers low-level fighters amnesty and vocational training if they switch sides-or rejoin the "national mainstream", in President Hamid Karzai's words.
The programme has met with some success: yesterday 15 insurgents in western Afghanistan handed over their weapons and promised to lobby other insurgents to do the same.
But despite pledges from the international community of millions of dollars to the programme, there have been consistent reports of promises of training and support being broken. And many potential defectors are thought to be too scared of Taliban retribution, and doubtful of the Government's ability to protect them, to make the change.
In Ghazni, provincial governor Musa Khan Akbarzada said that police stationed in Khogyani had handed over the district to the militants without a shot being fired, contradicting some earlier reports that the rebels had seized the area by force. When coalition forces arrived three hours later the attackers simply melted away.
A Taliban spokesman claimed that the police had switched sides after "learning the facts about the Taliban," according to The New York Times.
"We never force people to join us," he said. "The police joined us voluntarily and are happy to work with us and to start the holy war shoulder to shoulder with their Taliban brothers."
Government control extends just a few hundred metres from the district centre of Khogyani, which has become a hotbed for the insurgency in the area. Mr Akbarzada, the provincial governor, said that the Afghan National Army was ready to deploy there.
But there has been little government will to combat the Taliban's growing sway in the area. A local politician in Khogyani claimed that the district governor and his chief of police hadn't visited the place in weeks; meanwhile, nearby Nawa district has been under Taliban control for the past three years.
"The Taliban exist in and around the district centres, and we have our own judges, courts, district governors and other officials," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said. "We do our guerrilla attacks and then leave the district centre. This is just a building."
Afghan police are a key contingent in the coalition's counter-insurgency plans, deploying to posts in their home areas and bringing all-important local knowledge with them. Yet they also have the worst lot of all security personnel in Afghanistan, under-paid, poorly equipped, riddled with Taliban spies and often prey to drug addiction.