Maulvi Abdul Samad walked into the governor’s compound in the capital of Uruzgan province on a sunny, cold morning leading 13 of his fighters, veterans of countless battles, armed to the teeth with Kalashnikovs, machine guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers.
The last time he had paid a ‘visit’ to the building had been in the dead of night to carry out an attack with the aim, he admits cheerfully, of killing or injuring as many of the enemy as possible. Now he was coming in peace, one of the most high profile Taliban commanders to join the ‘reintegration’ programme under which militants can lay down their arms and return to their communities.
The defection of Samad had been portrayed by the Afghan government and its Western backers as a triumph for the scheme which is run parallel to the ‘reconciliation’ process striving to bring the leadership of the insurgency to the negotiating table.
But his case also illustrates the dichotomy and moral ambiguity of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Welcoming the Taliban fighters at the reconciliation ceremony amid fanfare was the provincial governor, Mohammed Omar Shirzad, and his imminent successor Amir Mohammed Akhunzada – a man with at a decidedly checkered past.
AMA, as he is known, has a brother Sher Mohammed Akhunzada or SMA, who was the governor of Helmand when the UK planned to send troops to the province. Tony Blair is said to have telephoned Hamid Karzai to warn that the deployment would not take place unless both the brothers were removed, such was their reputation for corruption and supposed links with the Taliban and the narcotics trade. The Afghan president resented such a diktat from abroad, but grudgingly acquiesced, replacing SMA with Engineer Daoud, a British backed technocrat with relatively clean hands.
The differences between London and Kabul over the Akhunzada brothers continued, reaching a flashpoint when Mr Karzai later appointed Amir Mohammed Akhunzada as deputy governor. His arrival, British officials protested, would undermine the efforts to eradicate poppy fields and control opium production. AMA was eventually sacked in 2006 for his alleged links to drug traffickers, but with a price: Engineer Daoud had to go as well.
The role of the Akhunzada family in Helmand continued to be controversial. Sher Mohammed was accused along with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President’s brother who was subsequently assassinated, of buying up voter registration cards in the province in the run up to the 2009 national elections.
This month, at a military base near the Uruzgan capital, Tarin Kot, General John Allen, the American general leading the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan sat in a shura or public meeting with Amir Mohammed Akhunzada, with the new governor proclaiming the part he has played in the reintegration programme and requesting Isaf funding for public projects.
A senior US officer based in Uruzgan said: “Look, we know some of the accusations that has been made against the Governor in the past. But he has been appointed by the President of Afghanistan and there is little we can do about that. Also the whole process now, what will be discussed at Chicago, is about handing over to the Afghans. This is not the time to tell the Afghan government who they can or cannot have as public officials. Our focus is on the reintegrees, the more that come over, the fewer the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] will have to deal with when we leave. The security situation is now a lot better.”
Violence has, in fact, gone down, but certainly not ended. Two Isaf soldiers were killed and ten others, including five children, were injured in a suicide attack at the weekend.
Nevertheless, ‘reintegrees’ is now part of the Isaf lexicon and Western commanders maintain their ranks are swelling. General Allen said: “Samad is a good example and there are many others like him. They see their leaders safe in Pakistan while they are doing the fighting. We have seen how the process is progressing. This time last year we had 600 to 700 going home, now this is more than 4,000."
Under the scheme, set up by the British in 2009, those who join the programme have to give up their guns and renounce violence. This does not entitle them to paid work or entry into the Afghan security forces. But they get a $120 settling fee for three months, and the villages hosting ‘reintegrees’ receive government grants.
Maulvi Samad, who has based himself near the village of Dhalsango, stated that his example has inspired other fighters. He volunteered to have himself biometrically recorded, a gesture of faith to show that he would not return to the Taliban. “Wherever I go, I have this one message. To all the people fighting, stop killing your brothers, this is your country. For the last ten years we have killed and disrespected each other. We are happy to see the coalition forces and we need to be grateful and work together before they leave. Peace is here and we shall improve this peace. We shall do it in the Afghan way.”
Sayed Hotak Naimtullah, who had worked in the security apparatus in the Ministry of Interior in Kabul and advised on combating insurgency, maintained that what Western countries Britain failed to recognize was that people like Omar Mohammed Akhunzada were very much part of the ‘Afghan way’.
“So they [the UK] got rid of him and SMA. Did that improve the security situation in Helmand? No, it got much worse. There are a lot of reasons behind this, maybe the presence of foreign troops itself contributed to the Taliban coming in such numbers” said Mr Naimtullah.
“The fact is that the Akhunzadas may be a lot of things the British said they were, but they kept the Taliban in check. They may have been brutal, they may have used bribes, but the problem was not so bad under them. Anyway, the President [Karzai] could not have thought they were so bad, he has made AMA a full governor and he has also given Sher Mohammed high positions.”
Others argue, however, that the seeming toleration of corruption will damage the prospects of bringing over insurgents. Yaqub Mohammed Maruf, a former fighter with the Hizb-i-Islami group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who now lives in Paghman, near Kabul, said:“One of the main reasons so many men had gone against the Government is because of bad behavior by officials, the abuse of their positions. Why should they give up their guns if the same old problems are continuing? They will go back to fighting again and they will not listen to such offers in the future.”