The Afghan government and its allies are reconciling with moderates and isolating hard-liners in a bid to split the insurgency, Western and Afghan officials say.
The idea of wooing moderates has gained traction as violence in Afghanistan has reached record levels this year. The United States and NATO are reassessing their strategy amid a growing chorus of Western officials who say that the international effort here is failing.
"Some ministries have started a program to try to separate Al Qaeda and the Taliban," says Ursala Rahmani, a former Taliban official who has been involved in talks with the government. Mr. Rahmani says that the Interior and Defense ministries are involved in the effort.
"We are trying to exploit the natural tensions that exist between Al Qaeda and those under Mullah Omar," the fugitive leader of the Taliban, adds a senior intelligence officer with the international forces, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some insurgent commanders may be closely aligned with Al Qaeda, which is waging an international, ideologically driven war against the West.
But Afghanistan experts say that most Afghan insurgents fight because of local grievances, including tribal rivalries, poor economic opportunities, and dissatisfaction with the Afghan government and international forces. Many experts say these insurgents have little interest in attacking sites in the West and restrict their concerns to Afghanistan.
Western officials dub these fighters "moderates," even though many of them are just as religiously conservative as their Al Qaeda counterparts.
"Over the long term, I see reconciliation as one of the primary actions that will have to occur for there to be success," says Carter Malkasian, who directs the Stability and Development program at CNA, a Washington-based think tank.
Such reconciliation is a key ingredient in the kind of counterinsurgency strategy militaries have used for decades, including in Iraq. The strategy may take two approaches. First, it will focus on the low-ranking insurgent fighters who may be easier to reconcile with the government.
"We tend to talk about the Taliban, but there is 'big T' Taliban, that is Mullah Omar and the [others] who ... swept through the country in the mid-'90s," says Eric Edelman, the Pentagon's senior policy official, told reporters in Washington recently. "There is what I call the 'small-T' Taliban, which are Pashtun tribals who are not reconciled to the government and may be engaging in ... activity kind of opportunistically."
According to officials at the Afghan Social Outreach Program, part of an Afghan government initiative to strengthen local governance, a new body is being formed to reconcile such fighters with the government that will use the promise of government jobs and cash inducements. This body will replace an already existing government organization that many say is corrupt and ineffective.
The second approach will be to zsow divisions in the insurgency's leadership and isolate elements close to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have differing strategies: Al Qaeda's policy of global warfare has brought it into confrontation with the Pakistani government, while the Afghan Taliban are on good terms with Islamabad and restrict its fight to Afghanistan.
"Al Qaeda's activities draw Pakistani military action, and this leads to natural tensions between them and the [Afghan] Taliban," says the senior intelligence officer with the international forces.
There is evidence that such tensions have existed for some months. In February, Mullah Omar issued a statement saying, "We want to have legitimate relations with all countries in the world," and expressing solidarity with Iran, a Shiite country viewed by the Sunni-extremist Al Qaeda as an enemy. The statement also indicated that the Taliban's main purpose was to fight within Afghan borders.
In response, prominent Al Qaeda websites posted messages denouncing the "nationalist trend" and pro-Iranian orientation in the Taliban's communiqués.
The effort to widen such possible divisions may include so-called psychological operations. According to intelligence officers, international forces and the Afghan government plant fake e-mails on jihadi websites or circulate bogus letters in the insurgent community.
For instance, a few months ago, there appeared a letter signed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who heads an insurgent network that is independent of Mullah Omar's Taliban and very closely aligned with Al Qaeda. The letter denounced Mr. Omar as "ineffective, ignorant, and illiterate" and appealed to insurgents to follow Mr. Haqqani. Intelligence agents with the international forces suggest that the letter originated from the Afghan government or its allies as an attempt to inflame tensions between insurgent groups.
Some insurgent commanders might be more amenable to negotiations than others. The US government is also backing talks between Afghan officials and former Taliban figures. A first set of meetings was held in the fall in Mecca, under the auspices of the Saudi king. Although many attending the meeting were low-ranking former Taliban officials or people who have fallen out of favor with the current insurgent leadership, observers say that Kabul may be hoping to use these talks as a starting point for future direct negotiations with senior leadership.
Some who attended the Mecca meetings say that future meetings are being planned in places like Dubai, and both sides are looking into meeting regularly in the coming months.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who heads an insurgent network allied with the Taliban, may not be fighting for purely nationalist or other ideological reasons.
"Hekmatyar's main concern is power, and he will do whatever it takes to get it back," says Waliullah Rahmani of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank. Mr. Hekmatyar was one of the few warlords not offered a position in the post-Taliban government.
In the spring, Hekmatyar sent a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, stating, "I have dedicated my whole life to struggle, but I am old." The letter goes on to imply that Mr. Karzai should remove all foreign troops from urban centers. A similar message was sent in October.
According to Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official who has seen one of the letters and is familiar with the negotiation process, Hekmatyar may be interested in a senior government post.
Splitting the insurgency, however, may prove difficult. "Many of the Taliban's financial resources come from Al Qaeda," says analyst Mr. Rahmani. The Taliban may also lack sufficient incentive to split from Al Qaeda or negotiate with the Afghan government as long as they feel they are winning the war and their havens in Pakistan are not threatened.
"Omar and his followers have nothing to lose and everything to gain if they can hold out long enough for foreign forces to withdraw," says Matthew DuPee, a researcher with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
But if the US can weaken the insurgency, it could force splits in insurgents' ranks. "If you achieve a measure of military success, then you are in a position to negotiate with the warlords," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The US must also offer incentives, such as more autonomy on the local level and more resources, he adds.
"If your end game is negotiated settlement, then you need both sticks and carrots," he says.
• Gordon Lubold contributed from Washington.