KABUL -- An Afghan police chief is giving sanctuary to Taliban fighters and their families who had sought haven across the border in Pakistan, a radical strategy aimed at ending the insurgency.
Kandahar Province police chief Abdul Raziq last December called for a "safe zone" for Taliban militants, a contentious plan centred on Afghanistan's long-standing accusation that the insurgency draws fuel from Pakistan's support in cross-border sanctuaries.
Since then, about two dozen insurgents have sought sanctuary in the southern province -- from senior commanders to low-level fighters -- with Raziq's trusted aide, Sultan Mohammed, instrumental in persuading them to leave Pakistan, security sources say.
Pakistan denies supporting the militants, saying it uses Taliban sanctuaries as a "lever" to pressure the group into talks with Kabul.
'Come back to your homeland'
Three former fighters spoke to AFP by telephone from secret locations in Kandahar. All say they have received de facto amnesty, and some obtained housing and money in exchange for not returning to the battlefield.
"Sultan Mohammed told me: 'Come back to your country, your homeland without fear. I guarantee no one will touch you'," 37-year-old Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former member of the Taliban's economic commission, told AFP.
"He came to the border in his car to receive my family," said Rauf, who defected earlier this year from Quetta in southwest Pakistan with his three wives and children.
Other Taliban figures who the sources claim sought refuge in Kandahar include senior commanders Malim Paida and Mohammadullah Khan and an insurgent leader known as Dr. Khalil -- a fugitive who escaped in a mass jailbreak in Kandahar in 2011.
While extracting a handful of cross-border militants is unlikely to significantly de-escalate the conflict, the effort underscores a new push by officials to shift what they see as the insurgency's centre of gravity from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
But sheltering or ceding ground to insurgents with blood on their hands is a risky and controversial gambit.
The Taliban April 21 orchestrated one of the deadliest attacks on an Afghan military base since 2001, killing at least 144 people in an assault that has caused widespread anger and left security forces facing disarray.
As the stubborn insurgency expands, Mohammed likens his effort to poking "small holes in a large dam", intent on a piecemeal collapse of the structure.
"The return of these Taliban figures will pave the way for others to come back," he told AFP.
'Tired of war'
Minutes after Khalil crossed the border through the Pakistani town of Chaman this year, he said, the Taliban began hunting for him.
"They would have killed me for abandoning the movement," he told AFP.
Fatigued by war, from Quetta he reached out to Mohammed, who offered him sanctuary with the stipulation that he return with his family -- seemingly a surety against him turning rogue.
Once in Afghanistan, Khalil said Mohammed offered him accommodation, food and a one-time payment of about $200 (13,523 AFN).
Now he is helping Mohammed gather phone numbers of other Pakistan-based Taliban members willing to relocate.
"Many are tired of war and want to return but are afraid of Pakistani intelligence on that side and of being arrested and tortured on this side," Khalil said.
'Don't fight someone else's war'
Afghanistan's National Security Council has refused to comment on the Kandahar strategy, saying only that the Taliban are allowed to relocate to Afghanistan under state protection.
A top security official told AFP last year that the government's goal "is to bring the Taliban from Pakistan to Afghanistan".
Some Afghans have questioned the strategy's usefulness, while others say every effort helps the peace process.
"There aren't one, two or three hundred Taliban," said Kabul-based researcher Rahmatullah Amiri. "There are thousands, and not everyone is in Pakistan. How will this plan make an impact?"
Sultan Mohammed said disarming and reintegrating even a few are worth the effort.
Whenever his walkie-talkie crackles with the voice of an insurgent, hurling profanities, threats and demanding that he return their seized weapons, he said he relays one key message: "Don't fight someone else's war. Come home."
Gen. Abdulkhaliq Barakzai, an Afghan MP representing Kandahar, expressed support for the strategy, saying that bringing former Taliban to a safe zone will help bring them into the peace process.
"If we have their leaders who fought for the Taliban, they can convince their followers to come and join the peace process," he told Salaam Times.
[Izazullah in Kabul contributed to this report.]