SANGIN, Afghanistan: Multi-million dollar plans to reintegrate Taliban fighters into society to help end a decade of war have hit a stalemate in one of Afghanistan's toughest battlegrounds.
Despite a deal struck earlier this year between the government and tribal elders in the north of Sangin district, violence continues and US Marines are dubious of insurgent claims to want peace.
Since US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last month, support has been growing for a negotiated peace with the Taliban as Nato allies remain determined to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by late 2014.
But a plan to reintegrate low-level fighters, which has been running for about a year and has cost at least $140 million in foreign aid, has proved to be a complicated and unpopular process.
It has hit particular problems in Helmand province, which includes Sangin, one of the most dangerous districts for foreign troops in Afghanistan, and which is seen as strategically pivotal to the outcome of the war as a whole.
The scheme is supposed to provide an amnesty to Taliban who agree to renounce violence, sever ties with terror groups and live by the Afghan constitution.
The British general in overall charge of the scheme, Major General Phil Jones, has said 1,740 former fighters have joined the process across Afghanistan and that peace talks are ongoing with up to 45 other groups nationwide.
But Jones acknowledged that the programme had met most resistance in Helmand, where the idea of reintegration is too closely allied with surrender — a taboo concept.
US Marines trying to administer the process say they are sceptical of the intentions of those who have joined up.
“It's a crapshoot,” said one intelligence officer in Helmand on condition of anonymity.
“We go to shoot them and they shout 'reintegration'. They're using it so we can't target them.”
Five men turned up at the main military base in Sangin a few weeks ago, claiming to be Taliban and saying they would wave the white flag if given jobs and projects for their village.
“We realise that fighting will not solve anything...so we made a decision to come with the government and surrender our weapons and ammunition,” said the group's leader, Noor Mohammed.
But with background checks unable to support Mohammed's claim to be Taliban, Afghan intelligence agents simply detained the men, apparently unsure of what to do with them, say Marines.
Mohammed told AFP the men thought they would get jobs and have schools built for the village if they surrendered and warned that other villagers were liable to be put off by his fate.
“If we get something for sure they will come, but we didn't get anything yet,” he said.
The problems echo those of an earlier reintegration programme launched in 2005 called PTS (Dari for Programme For Strengthening Peace) and damned in a UN report as “financially and morally corrupt,” according to research by the Washington-based New America Foundation.
Of the 4,634 men who registered for the process that ran to October 2007, none was a previously known Taliban, said the report.
Commanders and development experts say informally bringing rebels over stands a greater chance of success than a rigid scheme.
Earlier this year, provincial governor Gulab Mangal hailed a high-profile but informal peace deal with members of the Upper Sangin Valley's Alikozai tribe, saying it could become a model for other groups looking to switch allegiance.
The elders said they would prevent attacks on coalition forces in return for aid projects such as schools and clinics.
But two of the signatories have since been killed and attacks continue, leading Marines to believe that the tribe either reneged on the deal or does not have the power to enforce it.
The New America Foundation noted that political motives often trump economic incentives even among low-level fighters.
US Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Savage, commander of 1st Battalion 5th Marines deployed to Sangin since March, said development aid remained the troops' key weapon.
“It's the one advantage we have over the Taliban, and that's that we can do stuff for them and the Taliban can't,” said Savage.
“They don't have anything to offer them other than this way of life. It's a patronage society, if they're going to come over they want something for it.”