In a small, sparsely furnished room on the 4th floor of a shoddily constructed building in Khost's bustling town centre, my Taliban host minimizes his Facebook page on an open laptop as we settle on the cushions that line his fluorescent tube-lit quarters.
The heat is almost suffocating and I remove my burqa, which is awkward and difficult to walk in, yet strangely liberating in the anonymity it provides me.
A few moments earlier on the drive here, I felt invincible in the back of the car under this cheap blue polyester veil, triumphant as I secretly spied on the city through the coarse mesh of my invisibility cloak. I watched groups of men chatting idly by the roadside and a shopkeeper handing over a thin plastic bag of snow-white eggs to a customer. I watched a man flicking a damp rag over a pyramid of blood-red tomatoes to make them seem fresher, more enticing.
Life was almost normal, hardly as though this were one of the most volatile corners of Afghanistan, where only last week another lost soul corseted with explosives blew up a police checkpoint. On this hot June afternoon, all is quiet along the town's eucalyptus-lined streets. Nearby, the perfect blue dome of the Jalaluddin Haqqani mosque shimmers quietly in the heat.
My host is wearing a white shalwar kameez and matching skullcap. He has light brown hair, smiling eyes the color of jade stone and keeps one hand wrapped in a soft white cotton scarf during our meeting. His nom de guerre is Patsoon Ghurzang, "Revolution Movement."
Patsoon Ghurzang doesn't normally give interviews, but my translator knows him somehow, and he has agreed to meet me here in what is presumably his home away from his more permanent home, which lies somewhere beyond Khost's porous mountain frontier, across the border in Waziristan. His belongings are few -- a spittoon, a thermos flask, a small camping stove and a duvet bundled up in a corner.
It's risky talking to anyone these days, he tells me. He worries that his phone is tapped and laments he can never talk freely to anyone. "I am scared every day. Every day I worry I might be arrested. Every day some of us are attacked."
"I am mostly afraid of U.S. forces," he adds, "and secondly of the Afghan intelligence department - they are working for the Americans. But fear doesn't mean we can't fight."
And there is a lot to fight for in a place where for so many already, waving a white flag and surrendering peacefully has effectively meant losing everything.
Three months ago I met Haji Ismael, the head of Khost's Program Tahkim Sulh (commonly referred to as the PTS, the government's former National Program for Reconciliation), set up in 2005 to reconcile and reintegrate insurgents with the objective of "healing national wounds." The program failed, due to poor funding and a lack of political support, which meant that opportunities to bring in Taliban were squandered. The Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) now proposes to integrate the existing capacities of the PTS into its framework, although it is unclear how, with the added risk that this will simply revive former failed efforts under a new name.
Haji Ismael is a white-bearded man wearing a pale green and grey turban. His eyes gleam as he talks and he uses his hands a lot when speaking, pulling invisible streams of words from his mouth with long, brown, delicate fingers. He sits in a run-down office a few streets from here with the ubiquitous portrait of Afghan president Hamid Karzai towering above him, as it does in most government offices across the country.
When I met him in February, he introduced me to two recently reconciled insurgents, who told me they'd decided to stop fighting for two reasons. Firstly, because they said they trusted the head of the provincial commission; and secondly, because the government had promised them jobs, housing and benefits if they surrendered. This was almost a year ago, and they haven't seen a single Pakistani Rupee.
"I regret joining this process; all of my brothers regret it as well," one of them told me. "We have received no assistance from the government, nothing that they promised. We gave up everything in Miram Shah [the capital of Pakistan's North Waziristan agency, and a center of Taliban-affiliated groups] and now we have nothing, we can't get jobs. Our six families share a single room. Not even animals live the way we do now. We receive threatening calls from Miram Shah, that we will be found and killed and our home attacked."
The Talib sitting in front of me now says he has not been contacted by anyone in the government about reconciliation, and neither does he want to be contacted; like many, Patsoon despises the present administration for its endemic corruption and empty promises. Friends who have reconciled have been, in his words, "insulted and degraded."
"The [new] peace commission is just another of the government's projects, it's a lie, another money-making scheme and nothing else," he spits.
For all the hype surrounding the APRP, funded to the tune of $132 million, work has yet to begin in Khost province, an insurgent-filled sub-tropical parcel of land saddling the Durand Line that divides Afghanistan's and Pakistan's Pashtun tribal heartlands.
"We started work about three months ago, but so far we have been focusing on setting up our office" says APRP spokesman Nasir Ahmad Rokhan. "We haven't had a formal inauguration, and no one has been reconciled yet."
This casts doubt on the veracity of the figures announced by Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, the British director of NATO's reintegration cell in Kabul, who said last month that although the reintegration program had been running for only 10 months, demand from the Taliban to rejoin society had outpaced resources. According to Jones, the number of Taliban fighters who had joined the program stood at 1,740, though an additional 2,000 had applied. The combined figure represents about 15 per cent of the total 20,000-25,000 Taliban fighters estimated by NATO to be operating in Afghanistan. Gen. Jones said the number of Taliban fighters coming forward had accelerated since the death of Osama bin Laden.
The fact that the APRP is headed by the one-time leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance will certainly be a deterrent to many. "There is deep mistrust of the peace commission's leadership," my Talib host tells me. "Someone like [former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Mullah] Zaeef should lead the commission, not [former Afghan President Berhanuddin] Rabbani."
The APRP spokesman tells me there is no specific policy in place yet for how they will compensate young Taliban willing to give up their struggle. "Maybe we will help them finding jobs or support some private businesses," he says vaguely.
Given the amount of attention the peace program is receiving, as well as the millions of dollars that are being committed, this ambiguity and evasiveness almost a year after its inception is alarming.
"They've promised to release people from Guantánamo and Bagram, but it won't happen," growls Patsoon. "As far as I'm concerned, all these peace talks are nonsense. My friends and I, we are not interested. If the U.S. forces really want to negotiate, they need to be realistic. They need to close Guantánamo. There could be important people there who could advise their friends to join the peace process. Unless there are real changes in the top ranks of leadership, nothing will happen, we will never join this government."
As reports start to flood the wires about the withdrawal of U.S. troops in the coming year, Patsoon says he praises the news but that no one on his side believes it, assuming that it will only be a symbolic gesture.
I ask what he makes of Taliban methods of targeting their enemies, often with roadside bombs or suicide attacks, which are a far greater cause of civilian deaths in the region than botched U.S. military operations.
"We have a code of conduct, lai ha, issued by [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, in which he is very clear about this issue. Our lai ha is like the Afghan constitution, and we have a complaints commission: If someone doesn't meet the rules of our constitution, they lose their job or they are sentenced. Actually we have exactly the same structure and framework as a normal government - the only difference is that we are working in the mountains, not in government offices."
He tells me he has no problem with others operating under the name of Taliban - the only people he hates are the criminals and thieves exploiting the security vacuum in the region who give the Taliban a bad name.
I ask about coordination with the Haqqani Network, considered one of the most deadly insurgent groups in Afghanistan. "Of course we have strong coordination with Haqqani sahib. The Western media likes to say that there is conflict between our groups; there isn't."
"I'm very optimistic" he smiles, "I know we will be victorious."
There are no shadows beneath the glaring neon to indicate time passing or that the sun will soon set and prayers must be offered. But my host is fine-tuned to his faith and knows it is time for me to go. As we stand to say goodbye, discordant offerings to Allah are already sounding in the distance through the airless sky.
Emilie Jelinek has been in Afghanistan since 2004 and is currently working on a briefing paper for the Afghanistan Analysts Network. She writes the Captain Cat's Diaries blog.
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