Afghanistan, allies to launch new effort to return Taliban to society

Afghan soldiers held the mullah at gunpoint outside his house while they stabbed at the walls and floors with bayonets, searching for hollow spots where he might have hidden explosives or weapons.

The mullah pulled a government document from his pocket stating that he had forsaken the Taliban and had been granted amnesty. He showed it to an Afghan soldier, who shoved it back at him.

“He said, ‘That letter means nothing to us,’ ” said the mullah, recalling the encounter last fall at his Kabul home. “ ‘We have reports about you.’ ”

The mullah was jailed for three days, then released without explanation. The episode left him regretting that he ever trusted Afghan authorities and so fearful of reprisals that months later he spoke only on condition of anonymity. “That’s why I joined this reconciliation process -- to get this letter,” the mullah said. “I don’t even carry it anymore.”

The Afghan government, U.S. officials and NATO are preparing a new effort to bring mid- and low-level Taliban fighters back into society. In doing so, they face the task of convincing militants that the jobs and amnesty they promise this time will materialize.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long pressed efforts to peel Taliban fighters away from the insurgency.

Thousands of Taliban militants laid down their Kalashnikov assault rifles and signed up for the old program, which lasted 4 1/2 years and cost $3 million. But many fighters didn’t get the money and land they were promised and rejoined the insurgency. Others took the cash and returned to the Taliban.

“That program was ridiculous,” said Mohammad Arsalan Rahmani, a former Taliban deputy minister and now a senator in Afghanistan’s parliament. “Taliban fighters who surrendered have been arrested. They never got the land and money that were promised.

“Everything depends on the U.S. government. If there’s no sincerity, it won’t work.”

Britain and Japan will head a new, much larger international fund aimed at persuading fighters to switch sides, British officials said Tuesday. Japan, Britain and the United States are expected initially to be the largest contributors. The fund, which will be formally announced this week at an international aid gathering in London, is expected to reach $500 million.

During the White House strategy review last fall, Obama administration officials pushed the military to begin a process to flip rank-and-file insurgents, a tactic used with success in Iraq. The approach would target Taliban fighters who are at large, as well as those who have been captured and imprisoned.

But senior officials said the effort has lagged, most notably because the international military command in Afghanistan has been unprepared to strike deals with fighters.

Under pressure from the White House, officials have begun to rejuvenate the effort. This month, an admiral overseeing detention systems renewed plans to use the U.S. and Afghan prisons to help teach former Taliban fighters basic skills and entice them back into Afghan society.

At the same time, senior military officials say,an influx of troops into eastern and southern Afghanistan could sap the will to fight from less-committed Taliban foot soldiers.

The White House strategy envisioned a two-stage process: returning former fighters to society and bridging differences between extremist leaders and the Afghan government.

Mohammad Masoom Stanakzai, reintegration advisor to Karzai, said the previous program foundered because of inadequate international funding.

The Bush administration focused on militarily uprooting insurgents. Like the mullah in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Taliban members who signed up for the previous program were given letters certifying their participation. But poor coordination between Afghan law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led forces, led to the jailing of many Taliban who had committed to leaving the insurgency.

“Now there will be an arrangement that will provide robust coordination between the security agencies, the international security forces and the Afghan government,” Stanakzai said.

U.S. officials believe thousands of Taliban foot soldiers can be pried away from an insurgency that is far from a monolithic collection of fighters ideologically committed to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the former Taliban leader of Afghanistan.

Many fighters are from dirt-poor villages and towns, and are drawn to the insurgency for the money the Taliban offers. Others seek revenge for a relative wounded or killed by Afghan or U.S.-allied forces.

“There are a lot of people out there fighting for the Taliban who have no ideological commitment to the principles, values or political movement led by Mullah Omar,” Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said this month during a briefing with Western journalists in Kabul. “This is the majority of people fighting with the Taliban. And there is no vehicle for them to come in from the cold right now.”

Military units have been unprepared to handle fighters who wanted to negotiate, officials said. Last fall, a militant who led a group of about 50 fighters offered to lay down his arms in exchange for the relocation of his family members and those of his lieutenants to the relative safety of Kabul, said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, the NATO-led military force, which received the offer, was unable to accommodate the request and the militant returned to the battlefield.

Karzai, Washington and its NATO allies now hope to sway those fighters with jobs, Stanakzai said. The employment, which would last as long as two years, he said, would involve sectors such as farming, road construction, Afghanistan’s copper mine and marble industries.

Former militants could also be recruited to police their home villages, Stanakzai said.

“They could serve one or two years, and when the threat is over, then they could be a candidate for the national army or police,” he said. “Not immediately, though, because you don’t know if their mind has really been changed.”

Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward Jr., the commander of the military task force that assumed oversight of the prison system Jan. 7, said a crucial part of his job is to separate hard-core Islamic extremists from detainees who can be returned to Afghan society.

For the latter group, Harward plans to beef up education and training programs, teaching detainees masonry, cooking, sewing and other skills.

“If we can give them a skill, when they come back to their village they can contribute and, at the end of the day, have a higher purpose in life,” he said.

Taking a page from its Iraq strategy, the military also plans to engage tribal society in the effort. Before prisoners are released, the military wants assurances from tribal leaders that the fighters will not return to the battlefield.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, visiting India and Pakistan last week, acknowledged that Afghan officials were unlikely to reconcile with many former leaders of the Taliban regime, such as Mullah Omar. But in a round-table meeting with Pakistani reporters Friday, Gates acknowledged that there could be a long-term role for the Taliban in Afghanistan, though he said militant leaders would need to meet rigid terms to rejoin the political process.

“The Taliban, we recognize, are part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point,” Gates said. “The question is whether they are prepared to play a legitimate role in the political fabric of Afghanistan going forward -- meaning participating in elections, meaning not assassinating local officials and killing families.”

Although money and jobs may entice some Taliban fighters, the approach may not work with an insurgent bent on meting out revenge for the death or imprisonment of a relative, or destruction of his property, said Lal Gul, chairman of the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization.

The number of insurgents who fall into that category, Gul asserted, is larger and more formidable than the Afghan or U.S. authorities think: “Revenge is a very strong cultural factor in our country, which $100 million won’t change.”