The government and the High Peace Council in Balkh Province claim several high profile Taliban leaders have either been killed or defected to the Afghan security forces in recent months. Are these genuine cracks in the local insurgency, as one commander's surrender would seem to indicate, or more smoke and mirrors in the propaganda war?
War-fatigued: Former Taliban insurgents are sworn in as ANA soldiers at a ceremony in Balkh Province. (Photos: Rahimi)
A row of men, some with scarf-covered faces, holding rifles and machine-guns by the barrels in submission before representatives of the government. No more fighting for the Taliban, no more opposition.
It is a scene that has played out frequently around the country, touted by state and international authorities as proof that the insurgency is faltering in the run-up to the 2014 main withdrawal of foreign forces.
But as one such ceremony in Ghazni showed earlier this year, when the 20 purported surrendered fighters were never identified or heard from again, things are seldom as clear-cut as people might say. (See http://www.afghanistan-today.org/article/?id=230)
In Balkh, however, one recent capitulation and switch to the government side by a Taliban cell and its leader seems to stand up to inspection. Their stated reason: ideological disillusionment and sheer fatigue at in-fighting within the insurgent ranks.
Only last year, Commander Tofaan Zia-ul-Haq and his 14 men were waging a small yet effective fight against state and international forces as the Taliban made some crucial gains in the province. Insurgents took control of areas outside Mazar-e Sharif and stirred up swathes of active conflict with the security forces in the districts of Chahar Bolak, Chemtal and Balkh, situated on the vital highway between Mazar-e Sharif and Jowzjan.
Then in August 2012, the government announced its capture of the village of Payazkar, considered an epicentre of local insecurity. After four years spent fighting the government, Zia-ul-Haq laid down his weapons and joined the peace process with his unit.
"I found out that what I was doing is not jihad, but the destruction of my
country." Commander Zia-ul-Haq.
His decision goes beyond setbacks on the battlefield. Joining the Taliban initially was not a first choice career but rather the result of a lack of development and social infrastructure, Zia-ul-Haq said at a recent ceremony at which he and his men were sworn in as state security forces.
“From the inception of the new administration in Afghanistan, no construction and reconstruction work was done in our village," the turbaned former commander told journalists.
Nor was he welcomed by the state forces when he approached them.
“I was very interested to join the security forces of the government of Afghanistan, but I was never recruited," Zia-ul-Haq told Afghanistan Today.
Tofaan Zia-ul-Haq lost faith in Taliban policies and tactics.
Without a cause to fight for and with the livelihood of his village in ruins, he began to follow and be enchanted, like others in his area, by the jihadist sermons of Pakistani mullahs.
Finally he took up arms and spent four years fighting for the Taliban, sometimes travelling to Pakistan for training and bringing back equipment.
But as foreign and Afghan troops stepped up operations in his area he became increasingly disillusioned by both the reasons for his fight and also by fierce clashes with his supposed allies.
“At first I thought that by joining the Taliban, I was doing jihad. But I found out that what I was doing is not jihad, but the destruction of my country," said the commander, wearing around his shoulders the symbolic peace robe offered to realigned fighters and sounding confident about his new allegiance.
"The Taliban tried to convince us to burn down schools and we did not do it. It has caused us to come back to the side of the government."
The day before Zia-ul-Haq and his men declared their wish to side with the government, the commander and his fighters had fought an internecine battle with other Taliban forces in the area. According to sources in the local security forces.10 men from the sides died in the clashes by the village of Payazkar, including influential Taliban commanders, Mullah Hassan, Mullah Baqi and Mullah Safari.
“It greatly helps the security situation if if one armed anti-government individual joins the government, let alone when a commander joins and brings 14 fighters with him.” Police General Qaderi.
Zia-ul-Haq says he joined the Taliban to avoid such tribal infighting, not to further it, and acknowledges that the Taliban has been weakened by internal disharmony. “There have been inter-village conflicts between mujahedin commanders," he said without elaborating.
Such infighting and divisions between factions weakened the insurgency in recent months and the government is exploiting the tension to divide and rule, said General Abdul Raziq Qaderi, head of the Security Divisions of the Balkh Provincial Police Headquarters.
Qaderi, who has led many missions against insurgent forces in the area, confirmed that Zia-ul-Haq and his 14 men had switched sides, and hailed this as an example for others still ranged against the state.
“It greatly heps the security situation if one armed anti-government individual joins the Afghan government, let alone when a commander joins and brings 14 fighters with him,” said the general.
Isolated case or part of a trend? A fighter surrenders his rifle to an ANA officer.
Meanwhile, the head of the Balkh branch of the High Peace Council, Akhtar Mohammad Ibrahim Khail, claims his body has convinced 300 Taliban fighters to defect to the Afghan National Army (ANA) since 2011.
The government's own eventual capture of Payazkar came after 18 other Taliban fighters in the neighbouring Chahar Bolack District joined the provincial peace and reconciliation process in July 2012, according to security sources.
The local population may remain skeptical about triumphant claims of victory, having seen the whip hand in their areas change hands many times before. As the Afghan proverb says, 'the snakebitten are afraid of striped patterns."
But nor did changes to the local balance of power go unnoticed. Ghulam Mujtaba, a resident of Chemtal District, which last year was still a Taliban fortress, says he can now see a light at the end of the tunnel.
"The security situation in our area, particularly in remote villages, has improved," says Mutjaba. "People are now busy with their daily lives.”