The Afghan government is crafting a plan to offer jobs, vocational training and other economic incentives to tens of thousands of Taliban foot soldiers willing to switch sides after eight years of war.
Officials hope the multimillion-dollar initiative, which would reach out to 20,000 to 35,000 low- to mid-level Taliban insurgents, will succeed where past programs have failed. Skeptics, though, wonder whether significant numbers of militants will stop fighting when they believe they're winning.
"If this works, it is the turning point in the war," said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai, who has promoted the idea of national reconciliation and has even offered to talk with the Taliban's top leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Afghan officials insist their program will be different from one in Iraq where entire platoons of Sunni insurgents who were shooting at U.S. forces one day were paid salaries the next to turn away from al-Qaida and join local security groups under American supervision.
The officials said their program, which will be discussed at a Jan. 28 conference on Afghanistan in London, would create conditions for individuals to lay down their arms while top Taliban leaders are urged to negotiate peace. The Taliban leadership has rejected this so long as foreign forces remain in Afghanistan.
Some Afghans, who fear for their safety and are frustrated by an ineffective, corrupt central government in Kabul, have seen little choice but to side with Taliban in their villages. The goal is to lure scores of Taliban fighters off the battlefield so that violence will drop and the Afghan government will have time to shore up governance and the nation's security forces.
"If you reintegrate the foot soldiers and the mid-level commanders, you will shrink the space in which the Taliban can operate in Afghanistan," Stanekzai said.
U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview published this month that the U.S. is ready to back a reintegration program for individual fighters, or groups of fighters.
McChrystal believes "a tremendous number of fighters and commanders" would like to quit and "we just need to craft the kind of program that supports that."
In recent months, there have been isolated cases of Taliban fighters leaving the insurgency. Fifty-seven of them surrendered to authorities in Herat province, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's latest quarterly report on Afghanistan. Twelve laid down their weapons in Kunduz, along with 26 in Paktika province, 24 in Ghazni province and 51 in Baghlan province, the report said.
To lure others, Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said the Afghan government will have to offer incentives, such as employment or vocational training — as well as protection.
"The whole Afghan nation is fed up with three decades of conflict and I do believe that they want to support this government," he said. "But up to now, we were not able to provide them with protection, which they needed ... so once we are able to do so I think there will be a great change."
Details of the program have not been worked out. But Stanekzai said that in addition to protection, insurgents willing to join the reintegration program will be given access to jobs mainly through new or existing community development programs and industrial projects across the country.
"Vocational training also should be combined with a de-radicalization process," Stanekzai said. "They have been trained and brainwashed by very radical religious leaders."
Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said there is no economic solution to quelling the insurgency.
"It is not possible to separate Taliban fighters from leadership," he said. "Those who come to the government will come only for money. They are not real Taliban. The government wants to buy people with the reintegration program. This is a kind of corruption."
Early estimates say the program will cost at least $600,000 and could approach $1 billion in the first three years, depending on how many Taliban decide to give up their AK-47s for legal employment, Stanekzai said.
Some former insurgents may receive stipends to help them get back on their feet in society, but the thrust of the program centers on community development. according to international officials familiar with the program. Village elders will vouch for insurgents who give up and the international community will work to send development money into those areas with the idea that the money would benefit entire communities.
The program will be partially backed by USAID and money from a fund that enables U.S. commanders to dole out cash for short-term humanitarian projects. Donor nations are expected to pledge additional funds, earmarked specifically for reintegration, as early as the London conference.
Getting the Taliban's top echelon to the negotiating table is a tough sell. Taliban leaders say they won't even consider reconciliation talks until foreign troops leave the country, and right now, 37,000 more U.S. and NATO reinforcements are being sent to the war.
"I think the announcement to send more troops will tell the Taliban that the U.S. is more interested in war than peace," said Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, a former confidant to Mullah Omar and who served as foreign minister when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. "It means that peace talks are not possible."
To help lure the Taliban to the negotiating table, the Afghan ambassador to the United Nations, Zahir Tanin, asked the U.N. Security Council this month to lift sanctions on certain Taliban figures so that they no longer would be subject to asset freezes, travel restrictions and the like. Council members supported the idea, but some emphasized that reconciliation talks should be held only with insurgent leaders who give up their weapons, recognize the Afghan constitution and break ties with terrorist groups.
"We have to put pressure on the top level as well," Stanekzai said. "As long as they feel they have the space to operate in Afghanistan, then it will be difficult to get them to join with the peace process."
Afghan expert Michael Semple, who has negotiated with mid-level Taliban commanders before, said there are pragmatists in the insurgent network, including some who sit on Omar's 10-member council, but that their voices are weak.
"There are pragmatists, who understand that a continuation of the conflict will only cause more destruction. They can be persuaded to talk," said Semple, a fellow at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
"Forget the notion of defeating the insurgents," Semple said. "What you have to do is persuade them that there is no possibility of the regime collapsing and in a war of attrition they don't win. The next step is to find someone with whom the Taliban, including Omar, will talk."
Any talks without Omar will yield only piecemeal peace pacts with Taliban who have no authority over the bulk of the fighters, said Muttawakil and another former Taliban minister, Arsala Rahmani.
Omar says he's not interested.
"The invading Americans want mujahadeen to surrender under the pretext of the negotiation," Omar said in a recent statement. "This is something impossible."
Gannon reported from Islamabad.
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