Afghanistan fraught with shifting loyalty

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."

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.

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.