It was one of those moments that gets seared into your memory with the subtlety of a branding iron and could serve as a cautionary tale as the West tip toes towards the exit in Afghanistan.
I was standing in the marble, columned portico of the Kandahar governor's palace last summer when three rough-looking characters made their way across the neatly manicured lawn. These guys had the look, if there is any such thing as a Taliban look. There was a blazing sun and the thermometer had almost burst its mercury on that summer day. Yet these guys were ice-cold. They had a clear, dead expression in their eyes and button-holed Mayor Ghulam Hamidi. For several slow-motion seconds you expected a bomb to go off, but it didn't happen that day.
The trio were Taliban. They were Taliban who had "retired," if there is any such thing as a retired Taliban. They had come in from the cold the previous fall after years of bomb-making and bloody fighting. Surrendering to the Afghan National Directorate of Security, they had been enticed by the Karzai government's offers of peace, money, and a new life. Because they had surrendered to the intelligence service, they were not automatically enrolled in the reconciliation program and cooled their heels at an undisclosed safe house. By hook and by crook they were being fed and given pocket money while the government fiddled...for months.
They stormed the governor's palace that day because some faceless Afghan bureaucrat had cut off funding for their food in a fit of pique, or so they said. They came hunting for someone -- anyone -- in a position of authority to express their outrage. The mayor, soft-spoken and serious -- heard them out.
That Hamidi was to die six weeks later in a suicide bombing while listening to separate land dispute grievances is just another layer of acid irony.
The leader of the group was Mullah Azizullah, the most high-profile Taliban commander to "retire" to at that point in the war. He had delicate features and moved with easy grace, an image that was at odds with his blood-soaked reputation. His hatred of Westerners was palpable. If you were a foreigner, he wouldn't at look at you and treated you with the same regard we have for house plants. He presented a laundry list of grievances, namely that the government in Kabul had reneged on its promises.
"If I cannot have food, how can I ask others to come and join the reconciliation program?" Azizullah asked.
The fact someone would mistakenly -- or otherwise -- cut off funding to such a baleful bunch spoke so loudly about the competence of the Karzai government it was as if the message was being delivered by megaphone.
Yet, throughout last summer there were more stories like that of the skinny mullah in the white turban. The cash that supports the peace and reintegration program was wrung out of reluctant international donors at the beginning of 2010 after years of pleading on the part of President Hamid Karzai.
Yet, almost two years into the program prying the money out of hands in Kabul is almost as hard as wringing an AK-47 out of the hands of an insurgent.
The district leader in Panjwaii, southwest of Kandahar city, paid cash out of his own pocket to keep local Taliban from fighting last summer. Haji Fazluddin Agha bank-rolled reconciliation in that wild, little nook of the province last year. He essentially bought the peace.
There were sombre congratulations all round recently when as 2011 rolled into 2012 the total number of U.S. and coalition soldiers killed registered a decline. The Los Angles Times reported that 565 NATO soldiers died last year compared with 711 in 2010. (U.S. forces saw 417 deaths in 2011 and 499 in 2010.)
Military commanders attributed the results to sterling tactics and the sheer weight of the American footprint. The Taliban on the other hand, in their end-of-year message, (yes, as weird as it sounds they have those) saw the ebbing of the grim tide as the product of coalition troops hunkering down in their outposts and being afraid to fight. When they run out of explanations, the Taliban can spitball with the best of them.
The opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar was greeted recently with something akin to nervous tittering in Kabul. The High Peace Council welcomed it just as the Karzai government insisted no other foreign power (read the Americans) could talk with the Taliban without Afghanistan's consent. It was one of those helpless kind of statements that almost screamed "please don't sell us down the river" between the lines.
While Afghanistan wants and has have every right to demand respect for its sovereignty, especially in matters of war and peace, its ability to deliver results -- and even its sincerity -- are questionable. A healthy chunk of the country's economy not only thrives on the drug trade, but on the chaos of insecurity of the war.
NATO may want to salute its cold, steel tactics, but the reality is cold, hard cash help kept the beast at bay last year. You just have to wonder who is going to be paying the bills after 2014.