Love drives repentent Taliban chief to defect

The Sunday Times

Abdul Haqim was a university student of 19 when he was shot in the shoulder by American soldiers who sprayed bullets outside his village and killed his cousin.

Vowing to avenge the death, he joined the Taliban, rose to the rank of commander and acquired a reputation for ferocity with a series of bloody attacks on Nato and Afghan army patrols.

Now, at the age of 25, Haqim is weary of war. Two of his senior commanders have been killed in recent months and he says he is demoralised by civilian casualties. He has resolved to resume his engineering studies and marry the woman he loves.

“I want to go back to university,” he said last week in an interview arranged through an intermediary. “I don’t want to see any more civilians killed.”

Nato believes Haqim is one of a growing band of fighters who are preparing to switch sides. Yet his story highlights not only the vital nature of efforts to lure Taliban commanders away from the insurgency with their weapons and their men, but also the difficulties and dangers of securing such defections.

Haqim’s journey into the arms of the Taliban began on a cold winter’s morning outside his village in the Chak district of Wardak province, 50 miles southwest of Kabul.

Talking in a huddle of village men, he watched as a convoy of American soldiers drove along the nearby road. Suddenly, the armoured vehicle at the front of the convoy struck a mine. The soldiers responded by opening fire, apparently thinking Haqim and his companions had detonated it.

Haqim was knocked face-first into the dirt when a bullet tore into his left shoulder as he ran for cover. Bleeding heavily, he was pulled to safety by three men who stuffed cotton wool in his wounds.

A friend ran into the room to tell him that his cousin was dead and five of his friends were injured. One of them would never walk again.

“I couldn’t even speak to express my anger,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt to reveal his scar. “My mouth had been smashed in by a piece of flying rock.”

An uncle paid for Haqim to travel to Pakistan for surgery to remove the bullet, which had lodged in the side of his chest.

He was already incensed by detentions, night raids and the failure of the Afghan government to provide jobs. But as he convalesced in a hospital in Karachi, he thought often of his 22-year-old cousin, a fellow engineering student, and yearned to join the Taliban.

“He had two small sons. I was burning with rage,” Haqim said.

No sooner had he been restored to health than Haqim returned to Wardak and sought a meeting with the local Taliban commander.

He shadowed the commander for a week — a crash course in guerrilla warfare — and began by patrolling his village at night.

As his reputation for trustworthiness spread, Haqim was promoted to sub-district commander. He commanded 90 men, divided into four units.

In 2008 he took part in a brutal operation that culminated in the deaths of three American soldiers and an Afghan interpreter.

The Taliban took up positions along a narrow mountain pass through which the highway from Kabul to Kandahar runs. As a US convoy entered the pass, they detonated home-made mines and launched a volley of rocket-propelled grenades.

When the fighting subsided, the Taliban dragged one of the dead soldiers out of his vehicle and chopped him into pieces, Haqim says. He salvaged some of the soldiers’ cameras from the wreckage. On them were pictures of their home towns, their wives and their children.

“There was even video of them on their base laughing and talking before their mission,” Haqim said. “I pitied them. They were screaming and crying as they died.”

For two years Haqim amassed a pile of cash by attacking Nato supply convoys and selling captured trucks. Private security companies then paid him handsomely to ensure their vehicles’ safe passage.

Earlier this year, however, Haqim met a well-educated relative whose affluent family had moved her to Kabul to avoid the fighting in Chak, and decided to marry her. When his prospective father-in-law visited to discuss the dowry, Haqim made no attempt to hide the armed bodyguards at his front door or the weapons stashed in his house.

“He was shocked to find out that it was true what people said about me: that I was a commander,” Haqim said.

The prospective father-in-law told Haqim that he would never give his daughter’s hand to a fighter because he did not want to see her widowed.

Little wonder. Such is the ferocity of Nato’s onslaught, led by special forces, that it claims to have killed 368 mid-level Taliban commanders like Haqim and 968 foot soldiers in the past three months.

Haqim had had doubts about his role for some time. “The longer I fought, the more dead innocents I saw,” he said. “The people were saying to me, ‘Look, if you guys were not here, then our people would not be dying.’ It hurt me to know that they were right.”

Ultimately, he says, it was his desire to marry his fiancée that compelled him to lay down his weapons. “It was an easy choice for me,” he said. Haqim is not the only fighter from Wardak to come in from the cold. Habib Rahman, a 32-year-old sub-district commander from Jilga district, has also made peace overtures to the government.

Rahman joined the Taliban five years after the US-led invasion in 2001. His father was killed in the American bombing campaign that helped to bring the former Taliban regime to its knees.

“I was sickened by the killing of innocent civilians,” he said. “The Americans promised a lot when they came but we soon realised they couldn’t deliver anything.”

He started as a foot soldier, planting mines along routes used by American convoys, but soon he was in charge of 30 men responsible for ambushing convoys and patrols.

Despite the esteem in which he was held by his comrades, Rahman became tired of living on the run as Nato’s campaign intensified.

“I couldn’t return to see my family because I would put them in danger. Living in the mountains is no fun,” he said.

The Afghan government and its Nato allies hope that the defection of men such as these signals the beginning of the end for the insurgency.

They are offering them an amnesty, a job and the promise that their community will be rewarded with aid. Some will be allowed to join the Afghan army or police.

The plan, known as the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP), is still in its infancy, but there are early signs of success. Eight Taliban cells containing up to 240 men have ceased fire since the beginning of October. Nato says 18 other groups are in talks.

“One has a sense that the whole essence of this process is beginning to come alive,” said Major-General Phil Jones, head of Nato’s reintegration drive.

The response of the Taliban, however, has been murderous. In the northern province of Baghlan, eight defecting fighters were slain by a suicide bomber on their way to rejoin their community.

“This makes the ones who do want peace cautious,” Jones said. “They are fairly certain that if they step into this, there will be others out to kill them.”

For his treachery, Haqim’s former comrades have placed a bounty of $4,000 (£2,500) on his head. He believes a spy in his group found out that he was talking to the government.

“It was hard for me to keep it a secret. Many of my men knew — the ones I trusted,” he said. “I wanted to bring my men with me but the Taliban have made that impossible.”

Haqim has moved out of his house to avoid the hitmen, and the Taliban have seized his weapons and divided his men among other commanders.

Many fighters are thought to have mixed feelings about leaving. “If I stop fighting, maybe the government will still persecute me as a Talib while the Taliban try to kill me,” said Rahman. “I am stuck in the middle.”

The greater number of foreign fighters in the south and southeast — mainly from Pakistan and the Middle East — will make it even harder for foot soldiers there to defect, Nato admits. So far only 30 individual fighters in Helmand have begun to demobilise.

As for Haqim, he is clearer about his ambition than his chances of achieving it. “I want to become an engineer, but I’m not sure if I trust the government,” he said. “So many times we heard of commanders who surrendered. Many are now in prison. We will see what they do.”

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