PANJWAI: In this photo, former police chief of the Panjwai district, Sultan Mohammad Hakimi, poses with a gun during an interview in Panjwai. Despite the bloodshed he has witnessed throughout his career, Hakimi has made it a personal mission to give ex-Taleban fighters, commanders and officials the chance to reintegrate into village life. - AFP

PANJWAI, Afghanistan: After more than a decade fighting for the Taleban and being hounded by Afghan and US forces, Haji Lala thought there was little chance of ever returning home. Once a commander and senior district official for the insurgent group, he says he was captured by Pakistan's security services who took him across the border and detained him for two and a half years. Haji Lala said he was interrogated by the agents-long-term backers of the Taleban-for information about a spy working against the group. When he was released, the 58-year-old vowed to put his militant years behind him and look for a way to go back home.

It was with the unlikely support of a police chief and the encouragement of a fellow former Taleban militant that he was given the opportunity to return home to the southern province of Kandahar. "I thought maybe… they would hand me over to the US troops," said Lala, describing his initial trepidation at trusting a police officer. Before being captured, US forces he had battled against had raided his house nearly 15 times. "After I returned, friends and villagers visited me for nearly 10 days, as if there was a wedding party," he told AFP. "I have a good reputation now in the village and the police are also not troubling me. I feel absolutely safe."

Haji Lala's return early this year was made possible because of the protection of the former police chief of Panjwai district, Sultan Mohammad Hakimi. Despite the bloodshed he has witnessed throughout his career, Hakimi has made it a personal mission to give ex-Taleban fighters, commanders and officials the chance to reintegrate into village life. "We invited the former fighters to return, assuring them that nobody would harass them," said Hakimi. "Those whose farms were destroyed, we rebuilt them; those who had no water, we dug wells for them."

'Our brothers'
Even in retirement, Hakimi has continued an effort first launched by former Kandahar police chief General Abdul Raziq, a fierce opponent of the insurgents who was assassinated in 2018. Raziq's brother Tadin Khan Achakzai has since joined the effort after taking over as police chief of the province. "We will continue to help them in the future, they are our brothers too," said Achakzai.

"If we have the right to live, so does the Taleban-but to live in peace… not to carry out suicide attacks and kill people." For Hakimi, it is a way of contributing to a reconciliation process and also of "weakening the leadership" of the Taleban. During his time as Panjwai police chief, Hakimi launched insurgent-clearing operations in almost every village in the district, making it one of the most secure areas in Kandahar. But with violence surging in Afghanistan, the progress is fragile-with the Taleban last month retaking part of Panjwai in a major offensive.

The Taleban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 with an iron fist, imposing a harsh version of the Islamic sharia law. Ousted by a US-led invasion after the September 11 attacks, the jihadists were able to regroup, launching a deadly insurgency that continues to this day. In February, the Taleban signed a deal with Washington that paved the way for the withdrawal of all foreign forces by May 2021 and the start of peace negotiations between the insurgents and the Afghan government in Qatar.

New beginnings
Hundreds of Taleban fighters have defected from the group, but it still has tens of thousands of members and claims to have influence over more than half of Afghanistan. Several previous efforts to help reintegrate Taleban fighters had failed as they were "sporadic", said Andrew Watkins of conflict think tank International Crisis Group. "They were never able to convince the higher-up commanders to bring a lot of their fighters along with them," Watkins said.

Taleban commander Mullah Rauf, 48, had fought for more than half of his life before he returned from Pakistan to resettle in Panjwai and return to farming. He chose the same path as Haji Lala, contacting Hakimi rather than surrendering to authorities, in order to save himself "from any problems" such as a possible jail term. Haji Ahmadullah Khan, 53, now lives in an upscale area of Kandahar after emerging from a militant lifestyle.

Meanwile, a prominent Afghan activist who led an independent election monitoring organization died Wednesday after being ambushed by gunmen in Kabul, an aide and police said, the latest targeted killing in the restive capital. Mohammad Yousuf Rasheed was attacked in a southern suburb of the capital as he headed to work in his car.

Rasheed's murder follows a similar pattern of recent weeks, where prominent Afghans have been ambushed during the often-chaotic morning traffic. Rasheed was head of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) which, according to its website, has worked since 2004 to promote democracy, good governance and human resource management. "He was wounded and later died in the hospital," colleague Abdul Wahab Qarizada said.

He said Rasheed's driver was wounded in the ambush. Kabul police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz confirmed the attack. High-profile figures including journalists, politicians and rights activists have increasingly been targeted as violence surges in Afghanistan despite peace talks between the government and Taleban. Rashid's murder comes a day after five people-including two women doctors working for a prison on the outskirts of Kabul-were killed by a bomb affixed to their vehicle. It comes two days after a prominent Afghan journalist was shot dead in the eastern city of Ghazni. Rahmatullah Nekzad was the fourth journalist to be killed in two months, and seventh media worker this year. - AFP