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."