By Missy Ryan and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL, July 4 (Reuters) - Former Taliban fighter Mullah Rassoul is a man with few friends.
After he joined a NATO-backed programme to pacify lower-level insurgents this year, he says he was harassed by a government-supported militia in his area of north Afghanistan.
He considered rejoining his former Taliban comrades, but they see him as a traitor. "They said I had to prove my loyalty by killing foreigners or high-ranking Afghans," Rassoul said.
"I used to have respect, money and weapons," the former insurgent, a soft-spoken, bearded 36-year-old, told Reuters. "Now, I can't even defend myself."
As Western hopes for a peace deal with Taliban leaders fade, questions are mounting about how far a NATO scheme to entice foot soldiers to switch sides, now a mainstay of the West's political strategy in Afghanistan, can go toward ending a long insurgent war.
David Hook, the British major general who heads NATO efforts to sign up local Taliban fighters to a three-step programme that gives them training, community grants and amnesty for some crimes, said the so-called reintegration plan had recruited some 4,700 people since Oct. 2010, mostly in areas of western and northern Afghanistan beyond the Taliban insurgency's core.
While NATO commanders say the programme has begun to accelerate, other Western officials are sceptical of the latest attempt to demobilise fighters whose motives and circumstances are as diverse, and at times opaque, as Afghanistan itself.
"It has had a tactical effect in some areas, but it is irrelevant to the outcome of the war," one Western official said on condition of anonymity.
While even the drive's proponents acknowledge it is not a 'game-changer,' they say it has the potential to trim the ranks of a militant group NATO estimates has 15,000 to 30,000 members.
"It's our job to effectively reduce the fighting power of the insurgency," Hook said in an interview.
Whether it can do so becomes a more pressing question as NATO nations prepare to withdraw most combat troops by the end of 2014, possibly weakening incentives to enter the programme, and as the United States struggles to restart a parallel peace process with the Taliban's reclusive leaders.
Despite the reservations, Western officials say the programme, which costs a relatively modest sum of about $100 million a year, could help end violence on the ground if high-level talks resume.
The Obama administration's hopes for soon establishing peace talks between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban faded in March when the Taliban leadership, believed to be based in Pakistan, suspended their participation in the preliminary discussions run by U.S. diplomats.
"If there is a breakthrough at the top, there will be a huge torrent of lower-level fighters coming in," the Western official said. "We've got to be ready."
AVOIDING A REPEAT OF HISTORY?
Hook said efforts to settle local grievances that may have pushed Afghans to join the insurgency, such as land or tribal disputes, differed from previous attempts to turn Taliban back into ordinary villagers.
Afghanistan's recent past is as littered with efforts to demobilise fighters as it is with messy civil conflicts that begot them. The government of Soviet-backed leader Najibullah, for example, claimed to have reintegrated tens of thousands of fighters in the 1980s - not long before a vicious civil war broke out in which rival militias gutted the capital, Kabul.
Since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, a series of U.N. and Afghan programmes have aimed to break up militias and collect vast sums of weaponry. Despite the best intentions, the war has grinded on and violence has escalated dramatically after 2006.
Hook said the novelty of the current initiative, officially run by the Afghan government with support from the NATO-led international force, included community aid grants designed to ensure an ex-fighter's tribe and neighbours welcome him back.
Fighters are also paid a stipend of $120 for several months and receive education and vocation training, but they are not guaranteed long-term work. Their motivation, NATO asserts, must be to return home "with their honour and dignity intact".
At the programme's heart is the NATO assumption - which sceptics question - that the vast majority of Taliban take up arms for reasons other than ideology, such as the need for employment or a desire to settle local disputes.
Maqsoom Tajik, an insurgent commander who switched sides in Kunduz province five months ago, said he left the Taliban after militant leaders ordered him to conduct assassinations and sabotage public places, acts that could kill civilians.
"I wanted to wage jihad against the foreigners, but not that," he said. "Now I sleep in peace, without worrying my house will be raided" by Afghan and NATO forces.
Yet Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied a single true Taliban insurgent had signed up to lay down arms.
"The Taliban are fighting for a cause and will never go to the government side," he said. "The government's game is to bring in people and assign them Taliban names."
The programme has been less successful in areas like Helmand and Kandahar, traditional Taliban hotbeds, and in parts of eastern Afghanistan where insurgents operate with greater impunity. In volatile Paktika province, bordering Pakistan, just one fighter has signed up to date.
Mark Jacobson, a former senior NATO official who is now at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington think tank, said the programme had helped halt concerns about deteriorating security in northern and western Afghanistan.
"Reintegration of low level fighters - no matter where - is a positive step," he said.
While NATO believes only five fighters have rejoined the insurgency, Afghanistan's history of fleeting alliances raises questions about how long such arrangements will hold.
The risks facing fighters who switch sides is enormous.
"How can you lure the foot soldiers if you're still killing their commanders?" asked Sayed Mohammad Akbar Agha, an influential former Taliban whose cousin, Tayeb Agha, has represented the Taliban leadership in talks with U.S. diplomats.
Asadullah Amarkhil, an official from the provincial High Peace Council in northern Kunduz, said four former Taliban commanders had been killed in the last several months, just weeks after joining the programme.
"There is little protection for members of the Taliban who join the government," Amerkhil said. "If things remain as they are, we won't be able to encourage them into reintegration."
Hook said that "isolated cases of disgruntled re-integrees" such as that of Rassoul do not detract from the programme's record.
Agha, who wears the long beard common among Taliban, warned that recruitment of low-level fighters may undermine efforts to revive high-level peace talks, by fuelling suspicions that Western brokers want only to split militant ranks.
The Obama administration hopes the Taliban will end its suspension of initial talks, and the Afghan government has undertaken outreach of its own with Taliban representatives. But even supporters acknowledge the peace gambit is a long shot.
Ahead of the gradual Western exit from Afghanistan, however, there are no signs that donors will withdraw support for a programme they hope might improve security at the margins - and has a small chance of a much larger payoff.
"If - and I say if - the reintegration process really takes off, or if the (high-level) reconciliation process takes off, those two things could be very, very significant," a senior figure in the NATO-led coalition said. That "could shift that equilibrium quite markedly in the direction we need it to go." (Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in KABUL and Mohammed Hamed in KUNDUZ; Editing by Michael Georgy and Jeremy Laurence)