Before London Afghanistan conference, hope for Taliban deals

The US and its NATO allies are moving toward a fund to encourage Taliban members to lay down their arms and work with the Afghanistan government in Kabul. Hamid Karzai is hopeful ahead Thursday's London conference.

Stefan Rousseau/AP
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, right, meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, at his official residence in 10 Downing Street, London, Wednesday. Karzai promised Wednesday to lift the defense burden from the U.S. and its allies, as senior officials gathered in London for a conference to bolster flagging support for the international mission there.

Ahead of an Afghanistan conference designed to offer a “clear" policy among 70 nations on the nine-year war, a less clear but new and significant initiative is on the rise: Try what US forces did in Iraq -- buy off the opposition, or Taliban, with cash and incentives.

The plan, a major shift in war policy, and one being presented by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, would suss out ordinary soldiers fighting with less conviction or loyalty to Taliban leader Mullah Omar -- from true ideological jihadis and Al Qaeda loyalists. While viewed skeptically by some analysts, the plan focuses on the country boys, the $10 a day rank-and-file rural Taliban, who may have joined to get a gun and some pay, and promise them a better life and a cash reward.

It’s called “reintegration” in Western policy circles. President Karzai calls it “national reconciliation,” and he is expected to showcase the strategy Thursday in London, with strong agreement by figures ranging from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Commander of US forces in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Afghan’s tribal society has a long history of shifting loyalties. For instance, former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi was first a mujihadeen, then a warlord, then a Taliban, then spent time in prison before reconciling with Kabul. Now he's a district chief in the south.

Mr. Karzai admits reconciliation has failed before, but says what is different now “is that it is being funded.”

Indeed, funding for an idea now gaining currency ahead of Jan. 28 is a major shift in dynamics by a West tired of the conflict. The amounts discussed seem to be growing all the time. Some $300 million to $500 million is expected to be coordinated by Japan and Great Britain -- and is being given an imprimatur by figures as central as General McChrystal, who has overall military responsibility for NATO in Afghanistan, and Secretary Gates. Both men have spoken of bringing ordinary Taliban back into the “fabric” of Afghan society.

New German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke yesterday about a “completely new incentive for the reintegration of insurgents into Afghan society,” while the newspaper Handelsblatt reports German funding in the “two-figure millions of dollars."

Skeptics say that many ardent Taliban are not fighting for money, that there are few jobs to offer foot soldiers, and that the Taliban will come out of the hills, take money, and return. On Wednesday, Taliban leaders “rejected” reconciliation on their website, saying that Taliban would “not accept money…in an exchange for their cause.”

One Pakistani analyst of Afghanistan said that “Fathers in the village can declare two sons as Taliban, collect – and also declare one son loyal to the government, and also collect. You may find a rush for young men to declare themselves Taliban, to make some earnings.”

Yet reintegration comes amid fluid Afghan dynamics. While Taliban forces showed far more strength this winter than anticipated, experts say their ability to hold territory is not strong. Local populations are divided – and some studies show that among foot soldiers, religious passion may have waned, with large cohorts of Taliban fighters on board for reasons unrelated to jihad.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the Senate Foreign Relations committee, for example, that “...the Taliban leadership do not have as their principal aim Al Qaeda's violent global jihadist agenda. The vast majority of its low- and mid-level fighters are certainly not motivated by it."

The Pakistani analyst, who requested anonymity, says that many Taliban joined out of frustration, poverty, or to settle feuds with cousins or local tribal warlords. While Taliban leaders could well target soldiers who leave their ranks – such behavior, “especially if it is killing Pashtuns,” could spark intra-ethnic fratricide, and on-the-ground public relations problems for the Taliban.

Other potential positives from a policy to carefully flood the poverty- and war-stricken land with funds, is to allow a second or third level of Taliban leader to reflect. It is a breed of somewhat influential Taliban who may have a business across the border, are relatively educated, want to prosper – and may be on the fence.

On Tuesday, the UN took five senior Taliban off its international "blacklist" of 140 Taliban thought to have strong ties to Al Qaeda. The delisting of a former foreign minister and four deputy ministers is a move seen as encouraging a certain Taliban “type.”

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