Lock them up then let them go: strategy for the Afghan surge

Reconciliation is America's new weapon against the Taliban. Kim Sengupta reports from Helmand

The men looked frightened. Taken in handcuffs after US Marines found caches of Kalashnikovs, bomb-making material and opium during searches of their homes in a major offensive against the Taliban, their future looked bleak. But just 48 hours later the prisoners were brought back to their village and freed into the care of local elders.

The extraordinary scene was one of the first examples of the new US policy of "reconciling" the Taliban being implemented. It is modelled on how Sunni nationalist groups in Iraq (the so-called "Sunni Awakening") were persuaded or induced to turn their backs on al-Qa'ida, an initiative now seen as a major turning-point in that war.

The Afghan prisoners were returned to the village of Changowlak at the end of last week as the first American military mission was launched after Barack Obama's announcement of 30,000 US troop reinforcements.

The objective of Operation Khareh Cobra (Cobra's Rage in Pashtu) was to recapture Naw Zad, which had been in insurgent hands for two years. Under the doctrine of the Afghan "surge", the use of overwhelming military force to secure territory is followed as soon as practicable by interaction with the local population and attempts to persuade militants to lay down their arms. But the speed with which the men were freed came as a surprise, not least to the detainees. They were driven from their holding pens at the American base, Camp Cafaretto, to a hastily convened shura (village or tribal meeting of elders), unaware of the coming gesture of goodwill.

Squatting in a dusty field, the prisoners were called out one by one to face the gathering of about 50 men and a collection of young children. One of the first to step forwards was Izatullah Ali, a burly 38-year-old farmer, whose walled compound had yielded weapons and stacks of poppies. He heard Captain Andrew Terrell, of 3d/4th Marines say, through an interpreter : "We found mortar rounds at this man's house which are very dangerous weapons. We also found drugs, which are bad things. But we are told he is a good man and a hard worker so we are going to give him back to his father who is going to make sure that he is not going to do it again."

Izatullah's handcuffs were ceremonially removed and, then grinning, he joined his brothers squatting on the ground. His father, a stooped figure with white flowing beard, laboriously put his signature to a form accepting responsibility for his son's conduct. There was a ripple of applause from the crowd but also muttered oaths from some men from the Afghan security forces who clearly sceptical that they were seeing an insurgent reformed.

The reconciliation process to bring over Taliban fighters is a key component of the blueprint drawn up by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan. A British commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb is in charge of overseeing implementation of the strategy. Seen by senior American military figures as one of those who was instrumental in winning over Sunni militants in Iraq, the general has said that many in the enemy ranks in Afghanistan have "done nothing wrong".

The US Marines in the operation were in any case, prepared to see whether the experiment of freeing low-level Taliban fighters would work. One officer said lessons had been learnt from mistakes. "There is no point in having an unnecessary build-up of detainees; no one wants an Abu Ghraib situation on their hands" he added referring to the notorious US-run prison in Iraq.

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commanding officer of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade said: "We have given this matter serious thought and giving elders the responsibility of looking after these men is a good way to show that we trust the community. Obviously, we are not going to release some known IED [improvised explosive device] expert, but when we can we will release people we feel may be turned away from violence and terrorism. We are giving these people the benefit of the doubt and we are giving responsibility to the local community to see that this is not abused."

Inspecting the holding-pen at Camp Cafaretto, General Mohieddin Ghouri, the head of Afghan forces in Helmand, said the freeing of low-level Taliban prisoners was "an interesting and positive step", but stressed that no one should be hoodwinked into freeing their leaders. "Look at that man there" he said, pointing at one of the detained men. "He will tell you he has not done anything like this before. But we know he is Taliban, and we know he was a commander."

The policy of depending on elders to assure security has proved contentious. British forces withdrew from the town of Musa Qala after such a guarantee from community leaders. The place became, instead, a Taliban base from which raids were mounted across Helmand and eventually had to be reoccupied.

The massive influx of US Marines in Helmand – 11,000 strong with 9,000 more to follow – aims to ensure Nato presence remains in areas taken from the Taliban. The Americans say they are not about to leave Naw Zad.

"We went to a lot of trouble and danger to get this area and it now belongs to you," Captain Terrell told the gathering at Changowlak. "It is yours, this road belongs to you now and not the Taliban. But you must tell us if you see an IED, you must tell us if you see the Taliban. If you put something on the ground and cover it up, we're going to shoot you. If we see you carrying a weapon we will shoot you. These are the rules you must learn from now on."