On March 26, 2009, Mullah Sahib Jan, a militant Taliban imam from the Mohammed Agha district in Afghanistan's Logar province, walked into the office of the Independent National Reconciliation Commission, the main body encouraging the Taliban to lay down their weapons and work with the government. He was escorting fifty Taliban fighters who, he said, had committed to ending their fight against the Afghan government and entering the process of integration. To the government, Sahib Jan was a shining example of how reconciliation with the Taliban is supposed to work. But less than a year later, the former militant's story would stand as a devastating symbol of how the actions of US Special Operations Forces are sabotaging the very strategy for reaching a political settlement that US officials claim to support.
Throughout Afghanistan, large billboards line the major roads encouraging Taliban fighters to do what Sahib Jan did—reconcile with the government. The billboards show red silhouettes of Kalashnikov-carrying Taliban fighters walking across a line, after which they transform into civilians and join white silhouettes of unarmed Afghans dressed in traditional garb. The message is clear: lay down your weapons and rejoin the family.
When Sahib Jan walked into the reconciliation office, he publicly announced that he and his Taliban colleagues had agreed to work with the government on a peace process after the commission assured him that it would restrict US-led NATO forces from conducting night raids and killing civilians. "If the killing and arrests of people were not stopped," he said, "we would withdraw our support to the government and the foreign forces."
Reconciliation officials in Logar province say that making allies out of figures like Sahib Jan is the centerpiece of their work. Logar and its neighboring provinces, Paktia, Wardak and Ghazni, contain a strong presence of not only the Taliban but also the Haqqani network, the insurgent group portrayed by US officials as having the closest ties to Al Qaeda and a cozy relationship with Pakistan's ISI spy organization. Logar is also home to several tribes that say they have spent the past two years trying to make peace. A crucial part of this, they say, is building enough trust with the Taliban to make a serious case for ending their insurgency. Soon after his initial trip to the reconciliation office, Sahib Jan left his calling as an imam and took a position as a religious adviser to the reconciliation commission. As part of his work, reconciliation officials say, he traveled to hardcore Taliban areas.
"He was preaching to the Taliban, encouraging them to come to the government, telling the fighters there were a lot of benefits to laying down their arms," says Mohammed Anwar, director of Logar's reconciliation commission and an adviser to a local tribal council. Council officials credit Sahib Jan with putting Taliban fighters on the road to reconciliation.
But on the morning of January 14, Sahib Jan's bullet-riddled body lay on the ground outside his family's mud-brick compound in Logar's Safed Sang village. According to local officials and his family, he was killed in a night raid by US Special Operations Forces. "At 1 or 1:30 in the morning, US soldiers pulled up to the gas station in front of our house. We were sleeping in our rooms at that time," recalls Sahib Jan's 18-year-old son, Haider. "They broke down the doors of our house. My father was in one room, and we were in another. We don't know exactly when the US soldiers entered our house, we just know that they took our father and killed him. They killed our father outside our house, a short ways away. We don't know if they killed him from a helicopter or if commandos killed him."
According to Haider, US forces entered the compound with ladders and corralled the men into one room, where they handcuffed and blindfolded them. They moved the women to a separate room. "They tied all of our hands and roughed us up a little bit. They were beating us with both weapons and their hands," recalls Haider. "I was tied up from 1 or 1:30 in the morning until 6 in the morning." The family says that during the raid much of their property was damaged or destroyed. As Sahib Jan's sons were tied up, they had no idea of their father's fate until the Afghan translator appeared with US soldiers. They showed them a picture and said, "This is the man we killed."
"It was my father," Haider recalls. The soldiers then escorted the surviving men of the family to their father's body, where they saw about six bullets in it. With that, the Americans left; they have never contacted the family since.
"We have checked our logs and with our units that conduct these types of mission profiles. There is no record of the operation," US Lt. Commander Thomas Porter wrote in an e-mail to The Nation. But an eyewitness to the raid named Azmuddin, who works at the gas station in front of Sahib Jan's home, says, "US forces told me the next morning that they killed him because he had shot at them." Azmuddin says the morning after the raid he was arrested by US forces and taken to the classified Tor Prison, or "black jail," for fifteen days before being locked up at the Bagram prison for four months. In response to NATO's statement, government officials in Logar reacted angrily and swore that Sahib Jan was killed by US forces.
"There was a false report claiming that Sahib Jan was a Taliban, and the Americans conducted a night raid and killed him even though he had been working with us for months," says Anwar, the head of Logar's reconciliation commission. "During the entire time he worked with us, he hadn't participated in any attacks against the government. He worked with us as a religious adviser. Only the US soldiers know why they killed Sahib Jan. We don't know why." The local district chief, Abdul Hameed, says US forces carried out the raid without the cooperation of provincial security personnel. Anwar says that when he tries to contact US forces about these deadly incidents, they won't let him on their base, and the guards always tell him the appropriate officials are too busy or not there.
Officials at the reconciliation office point to several night raids over the past year, which they say targeted former Taliban who entered the process of reconciliation, as devastating to their work. "We are trying to build bridges between the Taliban and the government and trying to find jobs for them. We are working to get them decent housing in return for leaving the Taliban," says Anwar. "We are also trying to ensure that once they turn themselves in, they are not arrested again. How can we encourage reconciliation in good faith in the face of these American raids against the very people who agree to disarm?"
Meanwhile, US and NATO officials proclaim that the Taliban are on the ropes and will eventually be forced to make a deal. "The insurgency is under pressure, under pressure like never before in Afghanistan," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on October 22. "Our aim for this year was to regain the momentum. Now we have it." In recent weeks, such rhetoric has been bolstered by a flurry of reports about senior Taliban officials engaging in direct talks with the Karzai government, and US officials portray Washington as open to some form of a political settlement. But there is an enormous disconnect between the image projected by the US and Afghan governments and reality. On the ground the Taliban seem to be gaining traction and increasing membership despite, or perhaps because of, intensified US targeted-killing operations and night raids.
Two senior officials of the former Taliban government have told The Nation that the Taliban will not engage in any meaningful talks until foreign troops are expelled from Afghanistan and that reports that the Taliban are engaged in serious negotiations are false. "There is nothing going on, no negotiations between the Taliban and the Americans or the Taliban and the [Afghan] government," says Abdul Salam Zaeef, who served as the Taliban government's ambassador to Pakistan, in an interview at his home in Kabul. He says if anyone claiming to be Taliban is negotiating, they are essentially nobodies to the movement. "There was no 'peace meeting' because the Taliban reject it."
Privately, US officials have acknowledged that reports in US media outlets of senior Taliban negotiating are propaganda aimed at sowing dissent among the Taliban leadership. "This is a psychological operation, plain and simple," a US official with firsthand knowledge of the Afghan government's strategies told the McClatchy news service. "Exaggerating the significance of it is an effort to sow distrust within the insurgency."
The story of Sahib Jan raises a complicated question: was he really an influential Taliban figure? A current Taliban commander from Kunduz told The Nation that there is no evidence of the reconciliation program's success and that rural people are sometimes used as pawns in a game to elevate the status of tribal leaders with the Afghan government by "reconciling" Taliban fighters. "These are people who are just getting salaries from foreign powers or Afghan officials. You and I just invent a group and give them turbans and weapons and they go and say, We are Talibs and we surrender," says the Taliban commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Salahuddin. It is not clear whether Sahib Jan was an example of this, but in terms of public perception in Logar, that is irrelevant. What is not in dispute is that he publicly announced he was a Taliban mullah on the path to reconciliation and was killed in a night raid ten months later.
The US strategy seems to be to force the Taliban to the table through a fierce killing campaign. According to the US military, over a ninety-day period this past summer, US and coalition Special Operations Forces killed or captured more than 2,900 "insurgents," with an estimated dozen killed a day. Between July 4, when Gen. David Petraeus assumed command in Kabul, and early October, according to the military, US and Afghan Special Operations Forces killed more than 300 Taliban commanders and more than 900 foot soldiers in 1,500 raids. "This is precisely the kind of pressure we believe will lead to reconciliation and reintegration" of the Taliban, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently.