Taliban coming in from cold

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

When Taliban commander "Dr. Rasheid" handed himself over to the Afghan government three months ago, he half expected to end up in a US plane bound for Guantánamo Bay.

Instead, he was greeted with open arms and invited to help the government persuade his Taliban friends to turn themselves in as well.

His decision to accept Afghan President Hamid Karzai's amnesty offer has been followed in the past three weeks by at least five mid-level Taliban officials. It's too soon to tell if the trickle of hard-line Taliban commanders like Rasheid will become a torrent - and it's premature to declare the demise of the Taliban as a fighting force. With the warmer spring weather, in fact, the frequency and intensity of the Taliban attacks on some 16,000 US and 2,200 NATO forces is rising.

But the tide appears to be shifting. Fatigue is setting in among Taliban fighters. "We are tired of war; we don't want to continue with the destruction of our country," says Rasheid, who used a pseudonym for this interveiw because he continues to cross the border into Pakistan to persuade Taliban members to stop their fighting and support the Afghan government.

President Karzai offered an olive branch to rank-and-file Taliban fighters last year and said all but a core group of 150 militants wanted for human-rights violations would be able to rejoin the political process. "Not only the Taliban but all Afghans who are afraid of their past political affiliation can return home and resume their normal lives," says Jawed Luddin, a Karzai spokesman. "It is the time to rebuild our country."

Dr. Rasheid agrees but says "the Taliban are still worried that the government will take revenge on them, or they will send us to Guantanamo. We are trying our best to convince them [to accept the amnesty], but it is very hard work. Even so, we will not stop."

Meanwhile, recent attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan suggest that anti-government militancy is not dead yet.

• On April 18, US and Afghan forces killed 17 suspected Taliban guerrillas and captured 17 others in the Dai Chopan district of southern province Zabul. Among the captured were Pakistani and Chechen nationals, the Afghan government says.

• In a separate incident in early April, US gunships killed 12 insurgents in the southeastern province of Paktia.

• In Khost, US troops detained 24 suspected Taliban during a Sunday night raid in remote Ali Sher district.

While the number of Taliban attacks are up compared with the winter months, they're still down compared with last spring. Last year at this time, the Taliban targeted election workers ahead of the presidential vote.

"It's hard to see a trend here," says Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghan Rehabilitation and Evaluation Unit, a Western-funded think tank in Kabul. "Last year at this time, the security situation was worse, with most of the violence related to election activities."

Such attacks come at a time when the US military, along with Afghan and Pakistani forces, are stepping up operations against the Taliban.

Lt Gen. David Barno said militants would look to score a "propaganda victory" by staging attacks prior to the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. "Terrorists here in Afghanistan want to reassert themselves and I expect that they will be looking here in the next six to nine months or so to stage some type of high-profile attack to score media publicity," General Barno told reporters in Kabul last week.

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.

"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.

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