GHAZNI, Afghanistan — It must have seemed like a good idea. With then-U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in town, the newly installed provincial governor arranged for a surprise: Two Taliban insurgents would drop in on a ceremony in Eikenberry's honor, lay down their weapons and pledge to support the government in front of a large crowd of dignitaries.
Trouble was, no one informed the huge force of U.S. and Afghan soldiers who were guarding the event at the governor's compound here last December. Afghan security forces seized and held the two men, armed and dressed in black, at a checkpoint a few hundred yards from the event as they were driving to their appearance.
Later, it got more embarrassing for the governor, Musa Khan, when U.S. officials learned that he and another official had recruited and paid the men to show up in a bid to curry favor with Eikenberry. The governor's critics suspect that the men were hired flunkies.
"The whole thing was like a play," said Qazi Sahib Shah, a member of Ghazni's provincial council. "These were not real Taliban ready to make peace. The governor was trying to fool the Americans."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
The ceremony went off without a blip as far as the crowd knew — the irregularities weren't clear until afterward — and the identities of the men were never revealed, but they were the closest that Ghazni has come to officially disarming a Taliban fighter. Nearly a year later, in fact, no insurgent in this strategically important eastern province has been formally enrolled in the U.S.-backed process known as reintegration, a linchpin of American and NATO efforts to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Ghazni's reintegration program is a tale of questionable theatrics, dashed hopes, wasted money, official dysfunction and, among many Afghans, deepening fears that the insurgency is growing more potent.
The struggles here offer a window into a peace process that by nearly all accounts is failing even as the U.S.-led military coalition plans to withdraw its troops and, within three years, hand control of security nationwide to Afghan forces.
Over the past year the coalition has invested increasing time and money in a two-part peace process authorized by President Hamid Karzai: negotiating truces with insurgent commanders and reintegrating low-level fighters into society by forgiving their rebel activities and providing them with jobs.
The talks with the commanders have suffered spectacular setbacks, most notably in September, when man who'd claimed to be a Taliban emissary of peace assassinated the Afghan government's chief negotiator, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The lower-profile effort to disarm Taliban foot soldiers is no less troubled.
Donor nations have poured $142 million into an Afghan-run fund to provide fighters with jobs and other incentives, but barely one-fifth has been spent because of administrative hurdles and political foot-dragging. Even less has trickled down to the provinces, where local officials say they can't promise sufficient work opportunities or protection for the former insurgents.
"The formal reintegration process doesn't offer people much at the moment," said Deedee Derksen, a Dutch researcher who's written on the subject for the U.S. Institute of Peace and other think tanks.
"They can't guarantee security, and the lack of security relates to the fact that the program is not embedded into a broader political process. On paper, it is. But in practice there has been a huge rush for reintegration from the international community while the higher-level talks aren't going anywhere."
The United States set aside $50 million for reintegration programs this year, but as of September had spent only about $8 million. A U.S. military document that McClatchy obtained reported that U.S. reintegration funds had targeted 2,480 fighters during the fiscal year — the vast majority of them, however, in mostly peaceful northern Afghanistan. Fewer than 9 percent of "reintegrees" were in the south and east, where the insurgency is strongest.
In Ghazni, the U.S. spent more than $200,000, with no reintegrees to show for it.
A year ago, U.S. officials were bullish on the prospects for reintegration in Ghazni, an ethnically mixed province bisected by Highway 1, the vital artery that connects Kabul, the capital, with Kandahar, the second-largest city and the heartland of the Taliban. To Ghazni's east are the insurgent-riddled mountain provinces that border Pakistan, where coalition forces are engaged in increasingly heavy fighting.
Many thought that Khan, a grave-faced, pious Pashtun handpicked by Karzai, had the religious and ethnic bona fides to make inroads with the mostly Pashtun Taliban. Reintegration committees made up of well-respected locals were formed with help and funding from coalition forces. Anticipation for 2013 — when Ghazni has been designated the Asian Capital of Islamic Culture by a leading pan-Islamic cultural organization — seemed to open a pathway to peace.
Instead, NATO and provincial officials watched with growing dismay as Khan embarked on his own quixotic path to dealing with the insurgency.
With the local peace committees beset by infighting, Khan and his aides have conducted private meetings with Taliban commanders and fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to members of the provincial council, a locally elected advisory body that's increasingly at odds with the governor.
Through those meetings, Khan told McClatchy, he's personally "disarmed" 300 or 400 insurgents, but he can't name them lest their commanders target them for reprisals.
He's occasionally held gatherings at which weapons were displayed as proof that some fighters had renounced violence. Provincial council members who attended one such gathering, however, scoffed that they'd seen only two old AK-47s that appeared to have been lifted from government stocks.
Khan's aides declined to make any former fighter available for an interview.
"I know who is fighting and not fighting," Khan said. "There is no need for more explanation.
"Everybody confirms that the security situation is much better than last year. This shows that some people have been convinced not to fight, and I don't need to show the faces of these people to the media."
By most measures, however, security in Ghazni seems to be deteriorating amid a rash of targeted killings and roadside bombs.
Last week, a uniformed police officer was shot dead at close range in the provincial capital, less than 100 yards from a police checkpoint. Two days later, gunfire killed a U.S. soldier southwest of the city while his unit scoured Highway 1 for explosives.
With 19 fatalities this year, Ghazni again has become one of the deadliest provinces for coalition soldiers, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You ask yourself if this is a serious peace process," provincial council member Hamidullah Donish said. "He says he has disarmed 400 insurgents. Well, let him just bring four so I can meet them."
Khan's methods also have led some to wonder whether he's too close to the insurgency.
For months, one of his top lieutenants in the peace process has been Abdul Qadir Wahidi, a former senior security official under the Taliban regime who claims to have reported directly to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. A shadowy figure, Wahidi is rarely in Ghazni and spends much of his time in Pakistan meeting with Afghan insurgent leaders based there, officials and residents said. Repeated attempts to contact Wahidi were unsuccessful.
Then, several weeks ago, Khan told a news conference that he'd allowed two Pakistan-based insurgents whom he'd recently reintegrated to fire missiles in Ghazni in areas where civilians wouldn't be harmed. The insurgents, he explained to a dumbstruck audience, "were under pressure from their commanders to fire the rockets."
Khan told McClatchy that his comments had been misinterpreted.
NATO officials have grown extremely skeptical of his claims.
"He is saying he's the champion of reintegration and reconciliation. Well, what are the results?" said a senior NATO official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. The official made a circle with his thumb and forefinger.
"Zero," he said.
Instead, the official said, Khan is undermining the coalition-backed peace effort even as the U.S. government helps pay the salaries of provincial peace committee members and, at Khan's request, prints hundreds of thousands of fliers and brochures promoting reintegration.
Still, the United States and its allies remain committed to the process, with $50 million more in U.S. money pledged for 2012. On a patch of rocky land east of the town of Ghazni, a U.S. provincial reconstruction team of soldiers, diplomats and civilians continues to finance work on a school that's meant to serve as a vocational training center for former combatants.
Built by another U.S. team several years ago but never used, the long, V-shaped facility had fallen into disrepair, its windows smashed and plumbing clogged. Stung by its cost, Americans in Ghazni dubbed the schoolhouse "the $1.2 million monument to failure."
This year, U.S. officials spent $120,000 to clean up the place and install a generator, water pump, guard tower and front gate. Work is expected to finish by December, in the hope that provincial officials will begin to enroll former fighters early next year.
So far, however, not one potential student has been identified.
(McClatchy special correspondent Habib Zohori contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.
Follow Shashank Bengali on Twitter: @SBengali