Deep in a mountain valley north of Kabul, Gulab Shah and his fellow insurgents were under siege. It was mid-March, and a French-led military offensive had been pounding their village night after night. A few of his comrades managed to escape into the surrounding mountains, but most were killed.
In the midst of these battles, a progovernment tribal leader met with Mr. Shah's men and made them an appealing offer: Stop fighting, and we will give you amnesty and a job. The men cautiously accepted.
They joined a program aimed at reconciling rank-and-file insurgents with the government, an initiative that figures to be a central component in the Obama administration's strategy to stabilize this country. Local tribal elders credit this reconciliation process, together with the French-led military offensive, for a stark turnaround in the security situation here.
Across the country, violence has soared this year by 79 percent compared with a similar period last year, according to statistics provided by Sami Kovanen of the firm Tundra Security. But Kapisa Province is one of the few where violence has decreased. Insurgent presence has markedly diminished since the offensive and reconciliation efforts, which took place last month.
President Hamid Karzai, who officially confirmed he will run for reelection in August, on Monday hosted British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to discuss strategy. Mr. Brown said the West's security "depends on stability in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan," which he called "the crucible of terrorism." Washington, which believes that the majority of insurgents are not primarily motivated by an extremist ideology, hopes it may be able to lure such fighters to the government side.
"There may be some who could be considered extremists," says Shah, speaking of his fellow fighters, "but most of us are just ordinary people wanting the same things that all human beings want, such as jobs and well-being for our families."
Cash and jobs instead of guns
The Afghan government, through an agency called the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, has mediated with hundreds of insurgents. Since its founding in 2005, the commission has even enticed some insurgent commanders to switch sides. In addition, a parallel effort is under way with the US-funded Afghan Social Outreach Program, an agency associated with the office of the president.
Both programs aim to win over insurgents with cash and promises of jobs and land. In Logar Province, for example, nearly three dozen fighters defected in March, and those without land were promised plots.
Here in Alasay Valley, a restive district a two-hour trip north of Kabul, government-backed mediation efforts had floundered for months. The presence of insurgent group Hizb-i-Islami and the Taliban had grown tremendously here, in Kapisa Province, over the past couple of years. By last year, most of the Alasay Valley was under militant control.
But in a series of offensives this year Western forces were able to dislodge the guerrillas and reassert control in parts of the valley. Normally, when this happens, the insurgents regroup and attempt to reclaim territory,
In this case, however, tribal elders offered an olive branch to the besieged fighters. Muhammad Ismail, a tribe leader and former insurgent during the Soviet days, approached a local guerrilla commander, Ghafor Khan. "I told him that we will create job opportunities and bring education. I told him I spent time in prison for fighting jihad, so I know his feelings."
At first, the commander was hesitant, but Mr. Ismail persisted. "I told him that none of us want the Americans here," he continued, "but fighting isn't a solution, because the war will just go on forever."
The meeting, with 18 tribesmen from the government side, continued for some time. Finally, another elder pointed his finger at the commander and said, "If you keep fighting, the Americans will keep attacking our village and our civilians will suffer. We will hold you responsible."
The combination of intense military pressure from the international forces, the prospect of a job, and the discontent of his tribal peers finally pushed commander Ghafor to defect, his men say. He brought nearly 60 fighters over to the government side.
Breakthrough remains tenuous
Many of the fighters who broke with the insurgency say that disillusionment with the government, treatment at the hands of the international forces, and poor economic prospects were the main reasons they joined the insurgency.
Mawlawi Fazlullah, one of the defectors, says, "Most of us are locals who, due to some problem or another, headed to the mountains to fight." Mr. Fazlullah says he joined the insurgency after disappointment at a venal government and the lack of economic progress in his area.
His comrade, Rahman, who like many other Afghans goes by only one name, joined the insurgency after repeated house-to-house searches by the Americans. "I called government officials and asked them to make the Americans stop, but nothing happened," he recalls. "I realized that I can't support the foreigners or the government as long as this continues."
Elders warn that the fighters' grievances must be met. Mullah Muhammad, governor of Alasay District, says resentment with the government and foreign troops is high, and if they don't deliver a better existence, the dissidents might rejoin the rebellion. "Most people here are not happy with the foreign troops," he says. "Others are fed up with the joblessness. Some want to protect their religion from foreign corruption."
Reconciliation or ruse?
As tribal leaders and government officials gather in a room in the district center of Alasay to discuss the reconciliation process, they quickly start pointing fingers.
"The Americans kill our women and children. They enter our houses. They violate our privacy!" shouts Hajji Arif, head of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission here. "How can you expect our people to not fight?" The other elders clamor in agreement.
"The central government doesn't care about this mountainous district, and it never has!" shouts another.
Others say agencies such as the Peace and Reconciliation Commission are part of the problem. Since 2005, the commission claims to have reconciled with nearly 4,000 fighters. It has lost track of most of these, however. Some critics charge that many of the surrendered were never with the insurgency or lied about surrendering to get a payment.
"The commission only beefs up the Taliban," says Fazel Sancharaki, spokesman of National Front, a leading political opposition group. "They give out money so people come and denounce the Taliban, get payments, and then go and rejoin the Taliban."
Kabul-based political analyst Waheed Muzdja adds, "They get an immunity letter from the government and once they have it, they go back to their old business of fighting."
In many cases, the commission is unable to provide the jobs it promised to those fighters who genuinely want to reconcile, analysts say. Mr. Muzdja believes the government and the Americans must revamp the reconciliation program by making it more transparent and accountable.
Meanwhile, the former insurgents of Alasay have more immediate concerns.
"Before, I was only afraid of the Americans and the government," says Fazlullah. "But now I am afraid of the Taliban and the Americans. If anything happens to the American soldiers, they will know where to find me, and they will come and take me for interrogation. And if the insurgents find me, they will call me a traitor and behead me."