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Special report: By paying local police, the US may be funding the Taliban by another name.
MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — With his grey silk turban and bushy black beard, Ghulam Mohammad looks just like the Taliban commander that he was for many years.
To many critics what is less convincing is his current title: head of the Afghan Public Protection Program, known as “AP3,” a joint Afghan-American effort to bring security to his home province of Wardak.
Ghulam Mohammad himself seems a bit conflicted about his new role. When questioned about his former allegiance to the Taliban and how that squares with his work on behalf of an American-backed program, Ghulam Mohammad just smiled and shrugged.
“That’s my business,” he said.
With his Taliban past and his U.S.-affiliated present, Ghulam Mohammad seems to embody classically Afghan shades of gray — a mixture of both hope and peril — that make up a controversial component of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
It is a policy that seeks to bring former Taliban leaders into the fold by funding forces under their control, but the policy also raises the specter that the U.S. may in fact simply be funding, training and arming the very insurgency that it seeks to defeat.
Such initiatives, said Nic Lee, director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office should come with some major caveats. Rather than “peel off,” as he put it, the Taliban from the main fighting force, he believes the organization risks bringing the Taliban into the mainstream, and eventually into the government.
It is a famous axiom of military strategy that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." This GlobalPost special report looks at how economic aid in Afghanistan has become "war by other means." It reveals how the "civilian surge" is struggling to succeed and in some places actually creating instability and inadvertently benefiting the Taliban.
Part 1: Aid as a weapon
Part 2: Arming the militias
Part 4: The law of unintended consequences
“It would seem to present a convenient mechanism for discretely turning the opposition into the Government,” he writes in the first safety office quarterly report for 2010. “This may indeed create local stability in the short term but may seed geographically based factionalism in the long term.”
During an interview in his bare-bones office in Maidan Shahr, the capital of Wardak, Ghulam Mohammad explained how he reluctantly came to be involved with the public protection program.
“I had no interest in AP3. The governor and the head of security begged me to cooperate. So I came. It is my obligation to make Wardak secure,” he said.
He denied that he or his men harbored any covert affiliation with the active Taliban insurgency, but he did not reject his past allegiance to the movement.
One of the reasons the government may have been so eager to secure Ghulam Mohammad’s goodwill was the distinct lack of recruits from his home district, Jalrez.
In fact, before Ghulam Mohammad joined AP3, the majority ethnic group in Wardak, the Pashtuns, were sadly under-represented. But the commander and tribal elder brought his men with him: out of about 1,200 current AP3 “guardians” close to half — 560 — are from Jalrez.
Hundreds of armed men loyal to one commander suggests an old-style militia, a label Ghulam Mohammad strenuously resists.
“They just want to blacken our name, and the name of all Pashtuns, by calling us a militia,” he said. “That is not true.”
What is undeniable, however, is that by most accounts the situation has improved in Wardak since Ghulam and his AP3 became active just under 18 months ago.
The drive from Kabul to Wardak was not safe even a year ago; and government officials could not visit the outlying districts at all.
For now that has changed. Ghulam Mohammad is not shy about taking credit, either for his AP3 men or for himself.
“I have negotiated with tribal elders and I have brought a balance,” he said. “There used to be whole communities with the Taliban. Now there will be one house with the Taliban, but the neighboring house is with AP3.”
This would suggest that many of those who have joined the AP3 were formerly with the Taliban, and perhaps followed their leader in switching sides.
But his former Taliban ties landed Ghulam Mohammad in the American-run prison at the Bagram Airbase in 2004. He spent two years incarcerated, the result, he insists, of a plot by political rivals to get him out of the way.
|Ghulam Mohammad (Abaceen Nasimi/GlobalPost)|
“They told the Americans I was with the Taliban,” he said. “It was not true. I supported the government after 2001.”
Ghulam Mohammad maintains that he feels no bitterness toward his U.S. colleagues as a result of his prison years, but friends who know him well say that he claims he was mistreated at Bagram, and has very sour memories of his time there.
The burly commander has a unique approach to stabilizing the situation: he draws on his old contacts in the Taliban and threatens them.