At London Afghanistan conference, US, allies target strategy and cost to buy off Taliban

The US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan are moving toward a greater commitment to making peace with the Taliban, including paying some of them off and finding a home for others in the Afghan security forces.

Andrew Winning/Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown (left) welcomes Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai to 10 Downing Street in London, Wednesday. Karzai is in London to attend a conference on the future of Afghanistan to be held tomorrow.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai – who, according to a diplomatic cable in November by the US ambassador to Kabul, shuns "responsibility for any sovereign burden" – has been lobbying for international support to bring the Taliban into his government in exchange for peace. And at a conference on the future of Afghanistan to be held in London tomorrow, he appears likely to get it.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the conference will announce that Britain and Japan will jointly run a $500 million fund to "reintegrate" the Taliban into Afghan society. The point of the fund will be to provide Taliban fighters an alternative income, rather than what they're paid for fighting, and also reassure the men who agree to come in from the cold that they want be targeted for arrest and persecution.

Though the full details are not yet clear, such a move would probably include a promise to provide some of these men jobs in the Afghan Army and police, similar to a successful program that the US military ran in Iraq for Sunni Arab insurgents in recent years. Western diplomats also say that Karzai is willing to give posts in his government to Taliban leaders, up to and including cabinet posts, in exchange for a piece deal.

Though that program, which created militias called the "Sons of Iraq" to work with US and Iraqi forces against insurgents, helped pacify some of the most violent parts of the country, problems have also cropped up, with Iraq's Shiite leaders reluctant to fulfill earlier US promises of government jobs for the former insurgents.

The US strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan has evolved at breakneck pace in recent years, with the US casting off an earlier reluctance to negotiate with the Taliban and Sunni insurgents. Both groups, early in the war, were characterized as both irredeemable terrorists and dead-enders who needed to be cowed and destroyed.

Will $500 million make a difference?

But is $500 million sufficient to make a big difference? That's a lot of money in Afghanistan. The World Bank estimates that Afghanistan's gross domestic product is worth about $10 billion, so 5 percent of GDP is nothing to sneeze at. And against the total cost of the wars, it's a downright bargain. The Congressional Research Service says the total price tag of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars now stands at about $1 trillion.

But will it work? On that, the jury is still out. A McClatchy story Wednesday points out that some of the Taliban, including senior leader Mullah Omar, are based out of Pakistan and conduct operations across the border from there. Negotiating with these men will probably require also dealing with Pakistan and its Interservices Intelligence (ISI), which has at times worked closely with Taliban units. That's something Mr. Karzai may be loath to do.

There is also the problem of which Taliban, and how many of them. The Council on Foreign Relations estimated last August that there are at most 10,000 Taliban members in Afghanistan, but of those, only a few thousand are "active" fighters. The leadership of these men is fragmented, broken down along both geographic and tribal lines, as well as ones of personality. Though Mullah Omar is the titular leader of the Taliban, he does not exercise full control over all of these group.

But there are growing signs that seeking to bring at least some elements of the Taliban into the new Afghan system is likely to yield dividends. The Taliban are largely ethnic Pashtuns, and while they're typically very religious, their goals are generally national, unlike the Manichean world view of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers, who believe they're in a global war for the survival and spread of Islam.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported on an interview with Omar bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden's estranged sons. The younger Bin Laden, who lived in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, said Mullah Omar and the Taliban are purely allies of convenience with his father's movement.

"Although Al Qaeda and the Taliban organizations band together when necessary, they do not love one another," he told Reuters in an e-mail. "If there were no more enemies left on earth, I believe they would fight each other."

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