A cold wind has been rattling through Kabul’s trees, where slivers of pale almond blossom are just emerging. It’s been a long winter, and I’m afraid these buds aren’t going to make it. But tonight the air is as motionless as a lake and a full moon is rising proud and quiet over the city. It has sliced the sky into ivory black, casting long silk shadows of the still-leafless mulberry tree in front of my window.
Last month I flew to Khost for a week, where the day after I arrived a young man blew himself up along with thirteen other people whilst he was waiting for the provincial governor to drive by. I climbed up onto a roof and watched people fleeing the scene – faceless figures draped in blue shuffled hurriedly along a path through dun fields of sleeping maize, boys on bicycles, a man on a motorbike, patu flapping wildly behind him in dust kicked up by his wheels. Then the reassuring drone of apache helicopters, circling like vultures as masked US soldiers trained their guns on the site. Charred eucalyptus trees smoldered long after the dead had been carried away.
Almost two years ago to the day, I met a Maulawi and reconciled Talib, cousin of Southeastern insurgent commander Jalaluddin Haqqani (see interview here). I want to see him again, to ask how things have been going. He’s looking good and seems younger than I remember, with a full neatly trimmed glossy black beard.
When he was first reconciled, the Maulawi was appointed provincial head of the reconciliation and reintegration programme.
“I hoped I would be able to do a lot for the Afghan people; that I would be given resources to do so. But I wasn’t. Instead the government threatened to cut my salary if I couldn’t bring in Taliban. “We need 30-35 reconciled commanders,” they told me; I said it takes time to talk to people, to convince them. “So bring us shopkeepers with beards” was their response.
It became apparent a few years later that the programme had lacked the political commitment necessary for its success, that it had indeed been woefully under-resourced. It was regretfully acknowledged that opportunities to bring in Taliban commanders had been lost.
Then last June, as growing murmurs of NATO forces pulling out echoed through marble corridors in Washington, the programme was revived amid much publicity, fanfare and funding under a new High Peace Council. But the Maulawi is sceptical and casts doubt on the effectiveness or credibility of a reconciliation drive with members such as Rabbani.
Later on during the week, I have the opportunity to drive through Khost’s main bazaar, which is a vibrant place with rows of small shops selling crates of tomatoes, white oblong radishes, shiny black round aubergines, cauliflower, onions and browning bananas imported from Pakistan; in the next stall are thick coils of rope, bright red plastic buckets, kitchen mops and colourful wicker baskets from Zazi Maidan. Further on in a haze of sickly smoke, a man flaps at glowing embers with a cardboard fan and a group of men in shalwar kameezes and skullcaps crowds around the grill waiting for skewers of lamb rolled up in fresh naan. Each stall jostles for space along Khost’s dusty paved streets -- it’s business as usual in one of the country’s most volatile provinces.
We are only a two and a half hour drive from Miram Shah and I am suddenly seized by an absurd sense of invincibility and I want to go there. The urge is a fleeting one, and I remind myself of how painfully foreign I must look in the back of this small white Toyota (which also has a flat rear tyre), and my instincts scream at me once again to stop being a fool and get out of there.
The Maulawi’s successor in Khost’s provincial reconciliation office is a man in his mid-sixties with kind eyes, a white beard and a stripy pale green and grey turban. He sits in a run-down office, the ubiquitous portrait of Karzai towering above him as it does in most government offices across the country. His eyes gleam as he talks and he uses his hands a lot when he speaks, pulling invisible streams of words from his mouth with long brown delicate fingers. I meet him twice, and twice he is embarrassed because he has not brought me a gift, a scarf, which in Pashtun culture is rude, he tells me.
In the blink of an eye you’d have missed them, but in the afternoon’s shadows sitting quietly against the wall are two men, both newly reconciled insurgents, and a young boy. One of the men is in his early twenties, gaunt, dark-skinned and wearing a red skullcap; beside him his youngest brother. The other is a full-bearded older man with a furrowed brow and small bird eyes, who fought under Hekmatyar.
Both decided to leave the insurgency for two reasons. First, because they said they trusted the Head of the provincial commission, and secondly because they were promised jobs and housing and benefits by the government if they surrendered.
That was eight months ago, and they haven’t seen a single Pakistani Rupee.
“I regret joining this process; all of my brothers regret it as well. We have received no assistance from the government, nothing that they promised. We gave up everything in Miram Shah and now we have nothing. Our six families share a single room. Not even animals live the way we do now. We receive threatening calls from Miram Shah, that we will be found and killed and our home attacked”.
The former HIG fighter who once basked in the glory of commanding a battalion of men or driving a Soviet tank has a distant look in his eyes. I ask him what his life is like now. He walks barefoot across the room to refill my glass with steaming insipid yellow tea. “I am afraid that they will come to find me” he says softly.
As we talk and sip tea, the younger man’s brother arrives, wrapped in a patu. He keeps his hair long, jihadi style, and it pokes out of his pakool. He was a more senior commander than his younger brother, and only reconciled a few months ago.
I ask the commander what he does with his days. “The government doesn’t trust anyone who is reconciled, so no one will hire us. My other brother does small jobs, he owns a cart in town and he sometimes does delivery work. He gets calls from Miram Shah from the Taliban and they tell him “look at your life now, pushing carts. What kind of a man are you?”
“I really regret reintegrating with the government, I wish I hadn’t – but if I go back now, the Taliban will kill me”.
We shake hands and I leave them. Miserable, bored and ashamed, they will while away their days wondering how to feed their families, when the Taliban will come for them and why they put their trust in the government. It’s hard not to wonder the same thing.