SHINKAY, Afghanistan – A battered taxi sped up a dusty road toward a squad of Afghan soldiers searching for bombs planted in the dirt. Army gunmen who had fanned out for protection readied for a suicide attacker. The car screeched to a halt.
The soldiers recognized a local Taliban fighter in the passenger seat and pointed their guns at him when they saw he was armed.
"Relax guys," said Rahimullah, the Taliban fighter. He nervously stepped out of the taxi, holding his Kalashnikov rifle by the barrel to show he didn't intend to shoot.
"Can't you see it's a new Kalashnikov?" said Rahimullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name. "It's from the government: I've changed sides."
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The soldiers grabbed the weapon for a closer look. It was, indeed, newly issued. Rahimullah said he'd received it for leaving the insurgency to become a police officer.
But the scruffy 22-year-old still wore an insurgent's typical uniform: a white gown, ragged camouflage jacket and black bandanna that soldiers recognized from when they battled his faction in the Tagab valley a few weeks earlier. He had no identification on him or proof he had changed sides.
The tense encounter, fraught with risks for both the soldiers and Rahimullah, illustrates the challenges facing NATO and Afghan authorities as they try to turn former enemies into trusted government agents.
Officials say a key measure is peeling off small-time local fighters from extremist militants. But securing these shifting loyalties is tricky. Hundreds of police and some soldiers are known to have switched back once they were trained and armed. In October, a policeman opened fire on the British troops training him, killing five. Last year, police officers turned against American soldiers in two separate incidents, killing and wounding several.
The soldiers were stunned to see Rahimullah casually come up the road in broad daylight, claiming to be with the government. Rahimullah claimed he was heading to Kabul, the capital some 50 miles to the west, where officials had promised him a police uniform and card.
"We've got to be very careful with these people, we never know," said Capt. Abdul Hashem, the Afghan army officer commanding the mine clearance team that stopped Rahimullah last week. Hashem made a round of calls on his cell phone to check the turncoat's story.
Hashem reluctantly gave Rahimullah back his gun when senior officers confirmed the farmer belonged to a Taliban faction whose commander was now slated to become the local police chief.
The commander, Sayyed Ahmed, had fallen out with other Taliban chiefs in Tagab valley, where NATO officers estimate some 300 militants operate. His group of about 30 men was cornered by Afghan soldiers, who said they killed about a dozen during a clash in September. Ahmed called it quits and offered his services, they said.
"We have proof of his loyalty," said Capt. Romaric, a French mentoring officer living with a handful of men at an Afghan combat outpost on Tagab valley's front line next to Shinkay village, where Rahimullah lived.
Romaric, who gave only his first name because of French army field rules, said he and Afghan officers had confirmed that senior Taliban leaders were now after Ahmed and his men.
"They've called from Pakistan to say they assigned a suicide bomber to finish him," he said.
Rahimullah didn't mind the threat. Switching sides left him indifferent. "If my commander thinks it's the good choice, I'm sure he's right," he said, though he was taking a pay cut. His new salary as a police officer would be 6,000 Afghanis per month, or about $120. The Taliban paid him $300 a month, he said. "But the money was irregular."
Though now viewed as renegade, Rahimullah said he'd rather stay in his valley, despite the threats from other insurgent groups still stationed nearby.
"Our families can protect us," he said, pointing to mud-brick compounds in the distance where he and his comrades lived.
Making sure villagers protect themselves is seen as the crucial next step for Afghan military commanders masterminding the local turnaround.
"Tribal leaders will be the ones to decide whether people stay on our side," said Maj. Mohammad Daud, who was organizing a meeting between the army and various Maleks, or traditional chiefs, last week.
Daud said the powerful Ghazi Khan clan of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group was growing tired of the insurgency here. Its leaders had tentatively agreed to the move by Rahimullah and his group. But the leaders needed to be more firmly wooed onto the government side with promises of aid, a road and electricity for their homes.
To break the ice, Daud organized the meeting at a derelict summer house down the road from Rahimullah's village that was once owned by Afghanistan's former king. A dozen chiefs and elders showed up, entering the 1960's ski lodge-styled concrete extravaganza for the first time ever.
"They've walked past the palace all their life without even daring to look up," Daud said. "So being invited to have lunch here by the army is a very, very big deal for them," he said.
The elders all insisted that Ahmed, Rahimullah and his other local fighters could now be trusted to join the police. They said they could secure the bottom third of Tagab valley if authorities delivered soon on development projects, so villagers could see the benefit of siding with the government.
"If these leaders say so, then it's true," said Daud and other Afghan officers. They pointed to one of the chiefs seated at the place of honor at the table, a tall man in his forties with a beard tinted orange by henna. "He was a big Taliban boss," said Daud.
With evident embarrassment, the chief denied he'd been a high-ranking Taliban. "I was never very important," said Alizay, who goes by one name. He insisted that the villages he oversaw for the Taliban now wholeheartedly stood with the army.
But the Afghan and NATO troops know they don't really hold the zone for now. Despite a massive offensive with 100 armored vehicles this month, NATO and Afghan forces have intelligence that one of their small outposts in the valley could be stormed any time soon. The troops were so antsy that they requested illuminating flares to be fired from long-range canons several nights last week to avert an attack, an Associated Press reporter observed. And three roadside bombs were uncovered this month by de-mining squads next to the clan's villages.
Tribal leaders and the fighters they protect like Rahimullah are now at the tipping point, officials say. Daud suspects they won't stay long on the government side if they feel insurgents could reclaim control of the area.
"They have lunch with us, but they're still having dinner with the Taliban," he said. "We have a few weeks to show that we're the strongest."
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