The call of the Taliban

Afghans who severed their ties with the insurgency in return for promises of money and jobs are being tempted to drift back, disillusioned by poverty and fear

In a small, unheated, mud-walled room just outside Herat city in western Afghanistan, Hamida, a 27-year-old mother of six, pulls her red and black dogtooth woollen scarf around her to keep out the cold. She explains how her extended family decided to sever ties with the Taliban, and why, after a year of hardship, they are thinking about returning to the mountains and joining the insurgency once more.

In the early days of the government of President Hamid Karzai, the family had been happy with the new, post-Taliban administration, but the men lost their jobs in the village of Seyoushun and discomfort and discontent set in.

Drawn by money – and a desire to fight for freedom from the straitjacket of poverty they felt the Karzai government and its international backers had imposed on them – the family decided to throw in their lot with the Taliban four years ago. The men of fighting age joined a group that fought for the Taliban in the Pashtun Zarghun, Obe and Karukh districts of Herat province.

"We smuggled guns and other weapons and arranged suicide attacks against Afghan government officials and facilities," said Abdul Rachman, one of the former Talib fighters, a turbaned, portly man with a neat, moustache and beard. The suicide bombers themselves are Pakistanis or Kurds, he added.

But a turning point came just over a year ago when ten members of their family – brothers, uncles, cousins – were wiped out in one day of fighting.

Abdul Qader, another former fighter, plays a video clip shot on a mobile phone of the reconciliation ceremony at which he and his male relatives handed over their weapons and pledged to support the Afghan government.

The Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Programme (APRP) was established in 2010 and aims to peel low- to mid-ranking fighters away from the insurgency. A total of 3,825 former fighters have joined the programme to date, according to the High Peace Council. Those who agree to hand over their weapons and support the government are helped to rejoin their communities. From a fund worth £90m, former fighters are supposed to get a monthly stipend of £75 for three months, and help with training and jobs.

"We all decided we would join the peace process," Abdul Qader's wife, Sonia, explains. "We didn't want our children to be killed."

However, during the past year, the family have received virtually none of the promised benefits – and they live in constant fear of their lives.

"When we were living in the mountains, other fighters helped us," says Hamida. "They brought us food and provided us with shelter. Now we have been accepted back by the government, we don't have anything."

Hamida's husband, Abdul Wahab, is the brother of Abdul Qader. He is a police detective in Jalalabad, in the east of the country, and provides the family's only income. He earns 15,000 afghanis (£190) a month but the house in which the extended family of 30 live – one family in each room – costs a third of his salary.

The family were given some blankets and bags of rice at the reconciliation ceremony a year ago but have not received

any money. They also had to leave their village and go to Herat for fear of reprisals from their former Taliban colleagues.

Abdul Rachman, who is married to Abdul Qader's sister, described how insurgents would shoot at the family. "I couldn't go outside," he said. "They shot at me. And we no longer had any weapons to defend ourselves."

Even after moving, the family still feel unsafe. They receive threatening letters and phone calls. "We are just living in this room," said Abdul Qader. "We have no courage to go any other place than here."

The family's elderly matriarch, blind in one eye from a cataract, chimed in: "We fear a lot. We are very scared of the insurgents. Our children go to school but we never know whether they are going to come back or not."

A total of 304 fighters in Herat have joined the APRP. Asked why the government had failed to help the very people it was trying to win over, the deputy governor of Herat, Asiluddin Jami, answered: "Sometimes we cannot give them all we say we will because we have our own problems. We can provide a shelter for them, where the other insurgents can't interfere with their lives."

Ismail Qasimyar, a member of the High Peace Council, said it was possible some people who had reconciled with the government did return to fighting but added that there were measures in place to try and prevent this. "The ministry of rural development, the ministry of agriculture and the ministry of public works are all given funds under the name of the APRP to help people get jobs," he explains.

Major General David Hook, the director of ISAF's Force Reintegration Cell, which provides support to the APRP, told The Independent that the programme has had some glitches as a result of it being designed and executed almost simultaneously.

"This is part of the sort of friction you have with a process [that's] just finished and isn't yet perfect," he said. He added that only five members of the programme had gone back to fighting.

"When we get intelligence to suggest somebody has changed his mind, we do quite a careful investigation," General Hook explained, adding that the Afghan National Directorate of Security also carries out its own investigation. "There are some rumours individuals spread against people. There are some [cases] being investigated where the rumours are false; there are others that are ongoing."

For Hamida, though, the situation is becoming increasingly desperate.

"The government hasn't paid any attention to us," she said. "We are very poor people. We have nothing. If we go back to the opponents of the government, maybe we will have a good life, a better life. If the government helps us, we will keep with the peace process and never go back. But if, in two to three months, we don't get any government help, we will have to go back."

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the subjects.

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