KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Despite Taliban threats against their lives, nearly 900 militants have quit the fight and enrolled in an Afghan government program luring insurgents off the battlefield, a NATO official said Monday.
The months-old reintegration program, which attracts fighters with promises of jobs, literacy and vocational training plus development aid for their villages, is slowly gaining acceptance but faces serious challenges, said Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, who tracks the reintegration effort at NATO headquarters in Kabul.
The Taliban has retaliated against some insurgents trying to switch sides in northern Afghanistan, Jones said. Some local Afghan leaders also remain unclear about the details of the program and many question whether those who align themselves with the government can be protected.
There was a four-hour fight on Friday between the Taliban and insurgents trying to lay down their arms in Sar-e-Pul province. After 112 armed men joined the government recently in neighboring Jawzjan province, the Taliban burned some of their homes. Last fall, a dozen militants trying to reintegrate were killed by the Taliban in Baghlan province.
"Senior Taliban leadership have made their position extremely clear and on many occasions have put out public statements to say that anyone who steps into the process has a death sentence over their head," Jones said.
He and others had expected the program would be further along by now, but he said he's seen a growing interest in reintegration across the country in the past six weeks or so. "This will only move at the speed of trust," he said.
About 300 of the 900 ex-combatants who have officially enrolled in the program are from Badghis province. Smaller groups have joined in Ghor, Faryab, Farah, Balkh, Sar-e-Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan. These eight provinces are in central, western and northern areas of Afghanistan, away from the heavy fighting in the south and east.
"It's not to say that peace in our time is around the corner," he cautioned.
At least 45 other groups of insurgents have expressed interest in the program in two-thirds of the provinces across the nation, including Kandahar and Helmand - two of the Taliban's historic strongholds, he said.
"As I have traveled the country in the last year, talking to many Afghans, a lot of them said, 'Look these are fine ideas but we're really not sure they're going to work and there is great risk to starting a peace process. What if it fails? Where do we go from there?'"
"Can you provide people with the level of confidence that if they step into this process they will survive and live through it without being harassed, killed or assassinated?" Jones asked. "That's a real challenge."
The program is funded by a trust fund flush with $130 million from Japan, Germany, Estonia, Denmark and Britain. The United States has committed an additional $50 million.
To join, insurgents must renounce violence, respect the Afghan constitution and sever ties with al-Qaida or other terrorist networks. Small financial incentives are offered to those who enroll to help them with food and shelter, but aid is being channeled into projects and programs that benefit the former insurgents' communities.
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai who has been instrumental in crafting the program, said reintegration is gaining traction because of work being done at the grass roots level.
"In nearly every province something is happening," Stanekzai said. "This is because of the active engagement of the provincial governors, the peace committees ... and the provincial councils. All of these groups are reaching out to those who are somehow disenfranchised from the government or fighting against the government."
Forty former insurgents were formally reintegrated Monday in a ceremony in Ghor province in central Afghanistan.
"Negotiations are going on with other groups and soon another group of 20 is going to join," said provincial spokesman Abdul Hai Khateby.
Reintegration efforts, however, turned violent last week in Sar-e-Pul.
Governor Sayad Anwar Rahmat said that after five Taliban fighters - each commanding about 10 or 15 armed men - discussed reintegration with government officials, several of their homes were destroyed by insurgent rockets. About six insurgents opposed to reintegration died in a fight with those who have decided to leave the battlefield, he said.
"Eighty-nine people have joined with us in the past 10 days," Rahmat said, adding that most had switched sides because they were being pressured by Afghan security forces conducting operations in the province.
Violence also was reported in neighboring Jawzjan province.
Mohammad Aleem Saaie, governor of the province, said that after some insurgent commanders discussed joining the government, the Taliban attacked their villages and burned their homes.
"They divided up their families," he said. "They told half to leave the area and the rest are not being allowed to leave their villages."
Saaie blamed Afghan security forces for not providing adequate security for insurgents trying to leave the battlefield. He said the program has yet to provide aid to the 112 armed men who joined the government.
"They're disappointed," he said. "It's giving the program a bad name."
Associated Press writer Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.
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