Small pockets of Taliban foot soldiers ready to switch sides are waiting for the Afghan government to roll out a nationwide program to lure them off the battlefield and make peace with their leaders.
The plan won't be completed until after this month's peace assembly in Kabul, but according to a 36-page draft, it would attract low- to midlevel fighters with promises of jobs, literacy and vocational training plus development aid for their villages. Reaching out to top Taliban leaders would be done through political channels, perhaps by striking them off the UN sanctions list or granting a few exile to another nation, according to the draft, obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
The Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program, backed by a trust fund soon to be flush with $160 million in pledges from the US, Japan, Britain and other nations, has been in the works for months. It is a topic of talks Afghan President Hamid Karzai is having in Washington this week with President Barack Obama. A successful political resolution to the nearly 9-year war is key to any US exit strategy, and Pakistan and other neighboring nations have a stake in any design of a post-conflict Afghanistan. Reintegration is "more than just a few mullahs changing sides," Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top Karzai adviser who is crafting the reintegration program, said before leaving for Washington. According to Stanekzai and NATO officials, insurgents in a handful of provinces, including Herat in the west, Baghlan and Balkh in the north and Daykundi in the south, have already expressed interest in signing up for the reintegration program. To join, insurgents must renounce violence, respect the Afghan constitution and sever ties with al-Qaida or other terrorist networks.
Because the program isn't yet ready, the Afghan government recently sent the country's 34 provincial governors a nine-page letter with guidance for dealing with insurgents who say they are ready to quit the insurgency.
It says that while the reintegration program won't be finalized until after the peace gathering in the capital, local officials should start reaching out to insurgents interested in carrying Afghanistan's black, red and green flag instead of the Taliban's white banner.
Sultan Ali Uruzgani, who recently stepped down as governor of Daykundi province, received one of the letters. He said he has since traveled to Gizab district, which is heavily influenced by the Taliban, to meet with about 1,200 people and encourage insurgents to join with the government. "I said `Please, let's work on peace and stabilization, otherwise this generation will be illiterate,"' Uruzgani said.
He stressed the importance of providing security to those who switch sides. "They are separating from the body of the Taliban and al-Qaida and they will become targets," Uruzgani said. Many are already skeptical of the upcoming program, and "if the government quickly loses the trust of them, it will fail," he said. Roh Ul Amin, governor of Farah province, said he has already traveled to explain the program to elders and hundreds of people in remote districts. "The elders say `Peace is important, more than water or food,"' the governor said.
Insurgents who decide to reintegrate into Afghan society should be provided opportunities to work and treated with respect by their fellow villagers, he said. "Nobody should re-arrest them, not the Afghan forces and not the foreign troops."
Providing long-term security will be easier in some areas than others. "The security has to endure because if a 15-year-old comes out of the fight today, he wants to know that he's not going to get his head cut off by his former colleagues next week, next month, next year," said Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons, who is in charge of reintegration issues for NATO in Kabul.
He stressed that the program is not about buying insurgents off the battlefield, and instead would provide development aid and services to their villages. "The idea is that you get the whole community benefiting and turning against the insurgency," Barrons said. "That's the basic philosophy."
Issuing the interim guidance to governors will help give the program momentum, even before it's officially announced, he said. "It says to the governors, `Go ahead and get on with reintegration. Form a committee of relevant folks. Look around your parish for opportunities. Start with discussion and engagement and tell us what we need to do to start this happening." Not everyone will embrace the plan. The idea of reintegrating insurgents already has faced resistance from Afghans who have suffered the past 30 years at the hands of repressive regimes, warlords or insurgent violence. In response to those concerns, the draft plan promises to "address the legitimate grievances of all: both disaffected individuals, groups and those who remained behind and suffered as a result of disunity and conflict." The initial focus for the reintegration will be in Kandahar, Helmand, Herat, Baghdis, Nangarhar, Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, the draft says. Those who join the peace process may either return home at once or spend up to 90 days in a secured demobilization center, with input from their village elders, making the transition off the battlefield.
They will be given a biometrics identification card to make sure they only reintegrate once. Some will be granted amnesty, according to the draft. Depending on the circumstance, the program will offer ex-combatants humanitarian assistance, jobs and access to literacy and vocational training. The plan also calls for setting up centers to "mollify radicalized ideological beliefs" held by insurgents. Because there are not enough jobs in the private sector, the plan calls for setting up an Engineering and Construction Corps and an Agriculture Conservation Corps to support the national road system and public infrastructure, reforestation, water and irrigation projects.
Afghan officials insist that reintegration of fighters and reconciliation of the Taliban's top echelon need to be conducted in tandem. However, reconciling with top Taliban leaders, who harbored members of al-Qaida who orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is a delicate political topic, especially for the US "What President Karzai is saying, and we agree with this direction, is that you've got to look to see who is reconcilable," US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a recent television interview. "Not everybody will be. We don't expect (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar to show up and say `Oh yeah, I'm giving up on my association with al-Qaida.' But we do think that there are leaders within the Taliban, in fact there are some already, who have come over to the other side."
The outreach to top Taliban leaders might include addressing the problem of hide-outs along the Afghan-Pakistan border, removing them from the UN sanction list and securing political accommodation and "potential exile to a third country," the draft says. Offering to delist Taliban leaders or granting them exile in another country "largely misses the mark," according to STRATFOR, a private security think tank in Austin, Texas. "While there have been reports that Mullah Omar is not seeking a governmental position, it is clear the movement as a whole ... seeks a restructuring of the existing government to provide for a greater role for Sharia (or Islamic law) and positions for themselves in that government."