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Former Taliban chief who became top policeman says peace will never come

Haji Ghulam Mohammed Hotak, an ex-rebel leader, was persuaded to lead the Afghan public protection force, but says lack of funds and other problems make the job a joke

KABUL // Haji Ghulam Mohammed Hotak is the kind of man the United States hopes can turn the tide of this war. A former Taliban commander, he reconciled with the Afghan government and then went a step further by taking up arms against his old colleagues.

In many ways it was a dream scenario, one that Washington now wants to play out across the country as militants are bought off with offers of money, work and even political power. The problem is that this particular fairy tale does not seem destined to have a happy ending. Far from being a template for nationwide success, Mr Hotak, 49, said his story is a warning of the dangers that await. "Peace will not come," he said recently. "Never."

Mr Hotak hails from the district of Jalrez in Maidan Wardak, a province bordering Kabul. Having fought in the jihad against Soviet occupation, he joined the Taliban when they emerged as the most powerful force in the chaos of the mujaheddin's post-communist landscape. It was a logical choice at the time and, despite all that has happened since, he still believes it was ethically the right one. "The highways were blocked and a lot of people were being killed and robbed, so when the Taliban appeared everyone raised their hands and said they would submit their weapons to them," he recalled. "They were just thirsty for peace."

Mr Hotak continued to serve the movement during its period in government as a commander of 100 to 150 fighters. Then, in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion, he claims to have been on the side of neither the Taliban nor Afghanistan's new president, Hamid Karzai. Eventually in 2004, the US forces arrested him and he was jailed for more than two years in the notorious Bagram detention centre, north of Kabul, before being released.

Looking back, Mr Hotak said that was the moment he should have called it quits and opted for a quiet life in his village. But in 2009 plans for an Afghan Public Protection Force were put into effect and he emerged as its potential leader. To critics, the force was essentially a government-sponsored militia that risked undermining any legitimacy the police and the Afghan army were meant to have. To the United States and Nato, however, it was a collaborative scheme aimed at improving security and governance in Maidan Wardak.

For the first few months after the protection force set to work, Mr Hotak declined the chance to get involved, suspecting that the authorities could not put their words into action. After officials and elders repeatedly told him the project would fail without his support, he agreed to take charge of the entire force - something he bitterly regrets today. During an interview in Kabul last week, he said simply: "This is not a job, it's a joke."

Members of the force are given basic training, uniforms and light weapons and then sent to work, guarding people and property, across Maidan Wardak, an insurgent stronghold. The idea is that because they are all local men they will have better links with the community than the other security services. Mr Hotak says that there are huge flaws in the scheme, however. These include thelack of a formal military-style ranking system among his 1,200 men, which creates indiscipline.

The US$186 (Dh683) they earn a month is also far too little when they have to pay for their own food, he saidd. In fact, Mr Hotak said, funding was so low that he has had to buy basic supplies for the force, including petrol, heaters and blankets, himself. "I really regret doing this and every day I am telling the head of police and [the] governor that. They have blackened my name and background and shamed me," Mr Hotak said.

The protection force is just one small aspect of a strategy the government and the international community have been putting into play since 2009. Elsewhere in the country, tribes and villagers are increasingly being encouraged to form their own militias against the insurgency. It is a far cry from the early years of the war, when the emphasis was on de-arming society. A peace jirga is to be held in Kabul next month as part of a national reconciliation and reintegration drive aimed at persuading rebels to join the political process.

Mr Hotak, the brother of Haji Mohammed Musa Hotak, a member of parliament for Maidan Wardak, holds out no hope for either approach. Indeed, whichever way he looks he sees only a continuation of the fighting. He wants foreign troops to leave Afghanistan immediately, but no longer has much sympathy for the Taliban. "If you are with the Taliban now it's like you are working with the Americans. It's all the same because this is a political game."

@Email:csands@thenational.ae