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 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.
“I tell them, I know who you are and where you live,” he said. “I say, if you touch my men I will kill your father, your mother, your sister. They do not have the courage to face us.”
But behind Ghulam Mohammad’s bluster lies a deep unease. In his opinion, AP3 is on the verge of collapse.
Under-resourced and under-funded, the program is starting to show signs of strain. The men are unhappy, the population is skeptical, and, worst of all, AP3 may have sown the seeds of instability in the very areas it was meant to secure.
"I keep telling the government and the Americans, 'help us or let us go,' he sighed. "I don’t think they really want security."
It is a sad comment on a program that began with such promise just 18 months ago.
Wardak, which adjoins the capital, is known as "the gateway to Kabul." A lush green province of hills, streams and valleys, it was also a popular picnic and vacation spot for those seeking to escape the heat and dust of the city.
But about three years ago the situation began to deteriorate. Armed groups set up checkpoints on the roads, robbing and sometimes kidnapping travelers. The Taliban started distributing night letters, warning residents of Wardak not to cooperate with the government or the international community. Schools were burned, a campaign of assassinations was carried out, and many Wardakis working in Kabul stopped visiting their families on weekends.
“I haven’t been home in over a year,” said Bashir, a journalist from Chak district, speaking last summer. “It is too dangerous for me.”
There were frequent armed attacks even on the road linking Kabul with Wardak’s provincial capital, Maidan Shahr.
“Before I became governor, the situation in Wardak was fragile, deteriorating day by day,” said Halim Fidai, who took over the reins of the Wardak administration in July 2008. “Officials were restricted in their movements, development stopped. Anyone who came to the governor’s office would cover his face, so he would not be killed when he went back to his village. But this year on Prophet’s Day we had 5,000 elders, all openly supporting the government.”
Fidai divides his time between Maidan Shahr, the capital of Wardak, and his family’s home Kabul. But he insists that he is now able to travel freely between the two, something that would have been unthinkable when he first became governor.
“It is safe now,” he said. “There is no problem.”
The difference, he said, was the AP3.
The AP3 has its fans — the 1,200 young men who are now employed in the program are happy to have work; their families are also better off, and those who work in development are grateful that they can now implement their projects.
But there are many who argue that AP3 is at best ineffective, and at worst destructive. It can divide communities, contribute to instability and give rise to armed groups that could turn into militias, loyal only to their commanders and preying on the local population.
Nonsense, said the governor, Fidai.
“This public protection force is not a militia. It is entirely different,” he insists. “It is a responsible, accountable, uniformed, trained force within the framework of the Afghan government.”
The AP3 is an initiative of the Ministry of the Interior and the U.S. Special Forces.
But critics ask why, when more than $6 billion has been poured into police training over the past eight years, are the United States and the Afghan government so intent on creating an additional structure?
Simple, Fidai said.
“You can’t produce police in 21 days,” he said. “We need an immediate remedy … I only have 500 trained police for Wardak. That is not enough.”
But stop-gap measures like the AP3 are not the way to bring stability, argues retired Gen. Amanullah (he uses only one name), who was a high-ranking officer in the Defense Ministry during the Communist-backed government of Dr. Najibullah.
"The Ministry of the Interior is now producing plastic police" he said. “They give them a few weeks’ training and then they arm them, give them a uniform and send them out. If the Interior Ministry would support the police there would be no need for these kinds of groups.”
Even that is now under threat. According to a uniformed officer on Ghulam Mohammad’s team, who did not want to give his name, the new recruits receive no training whatsoever. Not that it is much of a loss, he added.
“The Americans do not understand this war,” he said. “The training they give is useless. They want us to carry big backpacks — in these hills! It is guerrilla war. They just don’t get it.”
Another problem with AP3, said Amanullah, are the close ties between the Taliban and the rest of the community. Arming one part of a village against another could be a recipe for disaster.
“These (AP3) will cause enmity between families, between houses,” he said. “Groups like these were the main cause of the civil war.”
Rather than heap the credit for the improvement in Wardak on the AP3, he said, better to recognize the contribution of the 1,500 American troops who arrived in the province a little over a year ago.
Fidai concedes that it is possible that the U.S. soldiers have made the difference.
“The Americans have helped a lot,” he said. “They have responded in time of need.”
Gen. Sayed Kamal Sadat, director general of Public Protection, who oversees the program, acknowledges that the AP3 have had limited fighting experience. In fact, he said, they have never come face to face with “the enemy.” There have been some AP3 casualties — 15 as of early April, but these were due to accidents, mines, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rather than to actual combat.
According to Rahimullah, a resident of Nerkh district in Wardak who claims to have witnessed clashes between the AP3 and the Taliban, the lack of direct contact is due to the fact that the AP3 simply run away when they come across the better-equipped and more battle-hardened Taliban.
“I do not think that these boys can bring security,” he said. “The Taliban control the night in our area. These boys just escape when they see the Taliban. They sit in their checkpoints and smoke hashish. When I pass by, I see blue smoke coming out.”
But Ghulam Mohammad denies that any of his men are involved in questionable activities.
“It’s just propaganda against the AP3 that there are hash smugglers or arms dealers among them,” he insisted. “We know these people well, they have been guaranteed by the elders in their village.”
Perhaps the best gauge of the success or failure of the AP3 is the fact that it has so far been limited to Wardak. The original idea was to expand the program to other provinces, but there are no immediate plans to introduce AP3 anywhere else.
“The Ministry of the Interior is not happy with this program,” said an inside source in the ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It has not been a success.”
The governor acknowledges that AP3 is stalled, but insists that this is not due to any deficiency in the Wardak experiment, but to the fact that Americans have been distracted by another “promising idea” — the Local Defense Initiative, which seeks to train and equip tribal militias to fight the Taliban.
“The international community should finish what it starts,” Fidai said. “Afghanistan should not become a laboratory.”
Fidai staunchly defends the program, which has brought so many benefits to Wardak.
“First, it creates jobs for young people who would otherwise join the Taliban,” he said.
It certainly worked for Spin Gul, a young man who returned to Wardak after two years spent working in Iran. He was having no luck finding a job. The economy in his native province was at a standstill, and security had deteriorated sharply, with the Taliban and other armed groups patrolling the highways and attacking the population.
What is a young man to do? The Taliban were one option — several of his friends and neighbors were with them. But he was not eager to participate in the raids, kidnappings and other insurgent activities that were making Wardak a dangerous place to visit.
Then someone told him the AP3, which that would pay him a whopping 8,000 afghani (about $160) per month.
So Spin Gul signed up, was vetted by the local department of the intelligence services and his village local council, went off to a nearby province for three weeks of training, then was issued a uniform and an AK-47.
Now he helps guard the highway leading from Wardak to Kandahar. In general, he is happy with his lot.
“It’s better than working in Iran,” he laughed. “Now that we have installed a checkpoint on the highway, the Taliban cannot take people off buses. There is no fighting along the road.”
Spin Gul rejects the complaints of those who say that the AP3, with a mere 21 days of training under their newly issued belts, cannot fight the Taliban.
“I know the people in my area,” he said. “I know who is Taliban and who is not. We are much more effective than the national police and army.”
But critics of AP3 say that this intimate local knowledge is also a major weakness of the program: if Spin Gul knows the Taliban in his area, then they also know him. This could keep the young man from taking action against the insurgents, for fear of reprisals against himself or his family. Just as likely, according to some research, Spin Gul and his Taliban pals will team up, split the money and weapons and conduct business as usual.
Still, Fidai is convinced that this is the way to go.
“This could be a reintegration model for the whole country,” he insisted.
“Reintegration” is now a catchword for a new, generously funded program to provide jobs and other benefits to those Taliban who want to lay down their arms and rejoin the government. It is called by the American military “the golden surrender.”
AP3 provides an alternative — the would-be fighters get a salary and do not even have to give up their guns.
According to Mathieu Lefevre, who researched AP3 for the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network, a non-profit, independent policy research organization, the program is generating a lot of anger among the local population.
“I spoke to several Wardakis who found it hard to understand how Ghulam Mohammad, a former Taliban commander, is now the head of a 1,200-man AP3 force to ‘protect’ them,” he said in a recent interview with GlobalPost.
In a blog post on the analysts' network website, Lefevre added that he himself had been suspicious of possible Taliban infiltration of the AP3.
“When I asked local officials about the possibility that elements of the Taliban could infiltrate AP3, I got more than a few big grins as my only answer,” he wrote.
A resident of Alesang village, in Chak district, who did not want to give his name for fear of retribution, said that the situation in Chak had worsened since the AP3 began its deployment.
“They have established a checkpoint, but it has not helped,” he said. “Three weeks ago armed men assassinated 75-year-old Haji Zahir, the head of Chak’s district council. They killed him in broad daylight.”
Rafiullah, a resident of Sayedabad district, is worried that the AP3 will degenerate into the lawless militias that so plagued the country during the civil war.
“These militias might be good for the government for the time being,” he said. “But they result in instability in the long run. They sow enmity between villages and between families. In past years when different groups set up checkpoints, people got killed over it.”
This, curiously enough, is a point that Ghulam Mohammad does not dispute.
“The AP3 will cause enmity house by house,” he said. “With one house Taliban, and one house AP3, they will fight, eventually.”
Habiburrahman Ibrahimi, a journalist in Kabul, contributed to this report.
War by other means: a series
Part 1: Aid as a weapon
Part 2: Arming the militias
Part 4: The law of unintended consequences