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Taliban coming in from cold

Citing fatigue, five Taliban commanders have taken an amnesty offer this month. Will more follow?

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Some Afghan officials argue that it is not US and Afghan military pressure, but promises of reconciliation that are drawing more Taliban back into a peaceful life in Afghanistan. The key change, Afghan officials say, was Karzai's December announcement of amnesty to lower- and mid-level Taliban.

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"Twenty Taliban have come to my office," says Merajuddin Pathan, governor of Khost province, which abuts the Pakistan border. "They say we have more people who want to turn themselves in. They want a peaceful life. They don't want to be harassed anymore."

But Governor Pathan offers his own variation on the Karzai amnesty plan, making a distinction between welcoming Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. "The Pakistani Taliban have been brainwashed by Jaish-e Mohammad and Lashkar-e Tayyaba [two Pakistani Islamic militant groups]. But the Afghan are not well educated, plus they are coming from a tribal society, so they are not very deep rooted in ideology."

Different mentalities will require different methods, Pathan says. "We will deal with the Afghan Taliban through dialogue. And we will handle the Pakistani Taliban with bullets."

For now, the most prominent of the Taliban leaders to hand themselves in include mid-level commanders such as Mufti Habib-ur Rahman, a top crime control official in the Taliban Ministry of Interior.

"Afghanistan is in a critical situation," Mufti Rahman said to a gathering of journalists in Khost on Saturday. "I accepted this, that I am a citizen of this country, and I should not be against the law of my country. I have students under me, and I have friends, and they will come back too."

Hard-line leaders of the Taliban, including the group's elusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, have dismissed the amnesty as an attempt to create a rift in the movement. Taliban officials say they will never negotiate with the Karzai government as long as US forces are on Afghan soil. The Taliban have also called on the government to reveal the names of the 150 wanted members.

US-led troops overthrew the Taliban in late 2001 after they refused to hand over the al Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Some Taliban say that despite the recent "defections" it is still difficult to persuade their Taliban colleagues to give up the gun.

"We are very happy to be back," says Gul Muhammad, another mid-level Taliban commander who used a pseudonymn for this interview. He has agreed to travel back to Pakistan and act as a mediator between the Afghan government and the Taliban. "We can change some people's perceptions, telling them first that Afghanistan is not occupied by a foreign power, and that Islam is not in danger."

But convincing Taliban members that they will be safe when they return is much tougher, says Rasheid. "We have Taliban friends, and the first thing they tell us is, 'How can you ask me to reconcile with that government when our friends and brothers are in Guantánamo? If you release them, that will be our guarantee that we will turn ourselves in.' "

The release of 17 Afghan detainees from Guantánamo on April 18 was a good step, Rasheid says. "If possible, bring all the Afghans in Guantánamo back so they can live in dignity," he says.

Wire service reports were used in this story.