Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Thursday, 18 February 2010

When Taliban fighters change sides

The Afghan government is having some success in winning over pro-Taliban fighters but the difficulty then is how to guarantee the security of those who give up their arms, as Martin Patience discovered.

A US. Army official greets Shinwari tribal leaders in Jalalabad
One Afghan tribe has signed a pact to keep the Taliban out of their lands

It's not easy to talk to the Taliban.

So when we heard that a commander and a dozen or so of his fighters had switched sides in the eastern city of Jalalabad, we were eager to meet them.

The drive is spectacular.

First you travel out of Kabul along a deep gorge, with snow-capped peaks towering above you.

And then, unexpectedly, the countryside opens up before you, as you wind your way down hairpin bends, inching past wheezing trucks struggling to climb in the other direction.

After two hours or so, we were making good progress, before we were stopped at a police checkpoint. There is fighting up ahead, we were told.

It appeared that some Taliban fighters were definitely not interested in talking, not on that day anyway.

Qari Mohibullah told me he began to realise that the Afghan government was no longer the enemy

After a brief chat, we decided to head back to Kabul.

Suddenly we heard gunfire. The fighting appeared to be getting dangerously close.

We scrambled into our vehicles, floored the accelerator and sped back to the capital.

Bloody assaults

A few days later, we decided to try again for Jalalabad but this time by plane.

Former pro-Taliban fighters Qari Mohebulla (R) and Fazel Rahman Farouqi (L) handing over weapons
Qari Mohibullah (R) surrendered weapons at a reconciliation office

We safely arrived in the city and, at the grandly titled office of the Afghanistan National Independence Peace and Reconciliation Commission, we finally met Taliban commander Qari Mohibullah and his men.

They sat on floor-cushions in a room decorated by Koranic inscriptions.

The commander - like all his men - wore the traditional shalwar kameez (tunic and loose trousers) and a black headscarf, which he fidgeted with frequently.

He had a long, thin nose and a scar on his forehead, which he said was caused by a shrapnel wound.

As he spoke, he swayed as if reciting suras from the Koran in a madrassa or a mosque.

Qari Mohibullah told me that he had first joined the Taliban in the mid-1990s, when a bitter civil war was ripping apart the country.

The Taliban then swept to power and many Afghans initially felt relief that at least the fighting had subsided.

But following the US-led invasion in 2001, Qari Mohibullah and his men fled into the mountains and across the border into Pakistan's tribal areas.

From there, he told me, he led attacks on Nato convoys and also launched bloody assaults on Afghan army and police checkpoints.

Jobs and security

So why did he choose to come home?

He said he began to realise that the Afghan government was no longer the enemy.

Map of Afghanistan

The head of the reconciliation programme in Jalabad, Salman Gul, then piped up, trying to claim a bit of credit.

"The Taliban told them that there are only unbelievers here," he said, "but when they saw me (Salman Gul had a large white beard) they knew that couldn't be true."

But, tantalisingly, Qari Mohibullah told me there were others like him who would be prepared to switch sides if the government provided jobs and security.

It is these fighters that the West and the Afghan government hope in the coming months and years to be able to entice back and so weaken the insurgency.

Fear of reprisals

No-one is talking about hard-core ideologues with links to al-Qaeda.

Instead the process will focus on men who either fight for money or believe they have no other choice.

But it will be a scheme fraught with difficulties.

At a small mobile-phone shop in the city, I met Seed Meran who had been a Taliban fighter until three years ago.

He now runs the shop, selling phone covers and batteries, earning just $3 (£1.90) a day.

His new life is not as promised. From his pocket he took out a tattered document with his passport photo at the top right-hand corner.

He told me that this flimsy piece of paper was supposed to guarantee his freedom, that he could not be arrested for his Taliban past.

But, he said, he lived in constant fear of reprisals.

His commander, who had joined the programme with him, had been arrested three times and was currently in jail.

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Afghanistan - Timeline
15 Mar 11 |  Country profiles
Afghanistan - Country profile
15 Mar 11 |  Country profiles


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