The Afghan government and the U.S. military have begun a fledgling drive to lure Taliban foot soldiers away from the battlefield by offering them job opportunities and protection, diplomats and military personnel familiar with the initiative say.
Officials hope the plan, which is loosely modeled on the "Sons of Iraq" program that lured Sunni Muslims away from the Iraqi insurgency, could help pave the way for an eventual Western exit from Afghanistan.
Envisioned as a potential centerpiece of the new Karzai administration, the re-integration initiative is conceived as a bottom-up, grass-roots effort, similar to the Iraqi program, which was widely credited with reducing the level of violence there.
At a time when relations between the West and President Hamid Karzai have been soured by public wrangling over corruption, the new program marks a rare instance of high-level cooperation between the Afghan leader and his foreign patrons. The program is to be Afghan-led, with the broad support of the United States, Britain and NATO's military force, which had been cool to such efforts.
In Iraq, the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq program got as many as 100,000 Sunni insurgents to stop fighting the U.S., or even take up arms against the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, by forming paramilitary groups. Efforts are underway to move them into state security forces or provide other jobs. U.S. military officers deployed in Afghanistan's south, the Taliban heartland, say they are being encouraged to test similar ideas in the field.
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, head of U.S. and Western forces in Afghanistan, personally wooed a key architect of the Iraq program out of planned retirement to help craft the drive, which is to be aimed initially at low-level Taliban fighters.
British Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, who arrived in Afghanistan at the end of August to help develop the plan, said a crucial element would be acknowledging that many insurgents believe that the West plans an open-ended occupation of Afghanistan.
Other fighters, he said, are acting on personal grievances related to powerful clan and tribal loyalties, such as a home destroyed or a relative killed, rather than subscribing to the overarching ideological agenda of Taliban leaders.
"We have an opportunity to reset the conditions," Lamb, former deputy commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, said in an interview at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force headquarters. The vast majority of Taliban foot soldiers, he said, are "misguided -- they have fought well for a bad cause."
Karzai referred to the effort in last week’s inaugural address as he was sworn in for a second five-year term, attaching the specific condition that fighters renounce any link to groups such as Al Qaeda.
"We invite all disenchanted brothers who are not directly linked to international terrorism to again embrace their homeland," he said. "We welcome those . . . who are willing to return to their homes, live peacefully and accept the constitution."
The Obama administration has made it clear that it intends to hold Karzai to such pledges, in order to establish conditions in which American troops can eventually draw down. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who attended Karzai's swearing-in, said Washington would closely monitor the Afghan government and made pointed public references to the fact that the United States and its allies have no ambitions to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely as a military force.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband showed strong support for a pacification effort in a speech in Edinburgh, Scotland, before attending the inauguration.
"Some Afghan Taliban may be committed to global jihad. But the vast majority are not. Their primary commitment is to tribe and to locality," he said. "Our goal is not a fight to the death. It is to demonstrate clearly that they cannot win, and to provide a way back into their communities for those who are prepared to live peacefully."
Afghanistan has long had a program in place to accept Taliban fighters who lay down their arms, but it is widely regarded as ineffective to the point of being something of a sham.
"Lots of Taliban surrender," a Western diplomat said wryly, when asked about the work of an Afghan reconciliation commission that claims to have "turned" more than 8,000 fighters. "And lots of them then un-surrender."
Last week, officials of the commission summoned TV cameras to their Kabul headquarters for the purported defection of 30 Taliban fighters from Ghazni province, south of the capital. Well-worn Kalashnikov assault rifles were piled theatrically on a colorful carpet at the commission's headquarters, and then everyone tucked into a large, companionable lunch.
One of the commanders, who identified himself as Noor Mohammed, gave contradictory and rambling replies when asked about his reasons for turning himself in. He lightly dismissed other queries, such as whether his defection had placed his family in danger.
"It's not a problem at all; no one will hurt them," he said.
Afghan and Western officials suggested that the reconciliation commission might continue, but only with a drastic revamping. Mohammed Masoom Stanikzai, Karzai's advisor on re-integration, said he hoped to develop a wide-ranging plan in the next month.
The new initiative will not include an immediate effort to forge some kind of accord with the senior leadership, although that could be an eventual element.
Over the last 18 months, efforts to draw Taliban leaders into indirect talks have largely foundered, in part because the insurgents believe their military prospects have been looking up.
Although they have been unable to capture any major towns, militants have rendered much of the country unsafe and have inflicted greater losses on Western forces this year than at any time since the start of the conflict.
In addition, the Taliban leadership generally dismisses Karzai as a corrupt and unpopular figure, seizing on the summer's election debacle as proof. The Karzai camp was accused of massive vote-rigging in the Aug. 20 balloting, and the Afghan president won reelection by default after his main opponent dropped out of a scheduled runoff contest.
"There can be no trust in this government; it is weak and lacks authority," said Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who served as the Taliban foreign minister before the movement was toppled in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Karzai has expressed willingness to negotiate even with the Taliban's supreme commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar, but the Americans have said that blacklisted leaders such as Omar would not be allowed to be part of any talks.
Now, however, there are signs of greater Western flexibility in dealing with lower-ranking figures, even those who are known to have taken part in attacks against coalition troops.
The day after Karzai's inauguration, a State Department representative traveled to the Nawa district in Helmand province for talks with local officials about using jobs and development as a means of luring Taliban soldiers away from the fight.
Nawa's district chief, Haji Abdul Manaf, said he was in favor of it, as long as fighters were willing to lay down their arms for good. "We can re-integrate them, but only if they accept the rule of law," he said.
Areas such as Nawa, which had been under Taliban control for years until a U.S.-led offensive in midsummer, could be a proving ground for the new efforts.
Lt. Col. William McCollough, commander of a Marine battalion in Nawa, said some captured foot soldiers were being released into the custody of tribal elders if they promised not to rejoin the Taliban, with the elders providing a guarantee of their good behavior.
"I do re-integration every day," McCollough said.
Lamb, like others involved in the initiative, believe it is not so much a question of splitting the Taliban movement as a matter of exploiting fissures that already exist in a far-from-monolithic insurgency: "They'll split themselves."
Times staff writer Tony Perry in Helmand province contributed to this report.