New Afghan initiative: Convince insurgents to switch sides

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Facing a worsening Taliban-led insurgency and growing domestic opposition to the Afghanistan war, the leaders of the U.S. and Britain are under pressure to find a political path out of a conflict that they concede can't be won militarily.

Backed by President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is to host a Jan. 28 international conference in London to synchronize a political strategy with the military counterinsurgency campaign that's being intensified with the deployment this year of 30,000 additional U.S. troops.

"Military reinforcements alone will not be enough to achieve success," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement Thursday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a rare appearance that underscored the effort's importance. "The international community needs to fully align military and civilian resources behind a political strategy that engages the Afghan people in the defense of their country, divides the insurgency and builds regional cooperation."

Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the committee: "The fate of Afghanistan is going to be decided in the forthcoming period."

A key pillar of the new strategy, known as reintegration, is to be unveiled by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in London. Like other components of the U.S.-backed strategy, however, the initiative faces significant hurdles.

Designed to weaken the insurgency by convincing significant numbers of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 guerrillas to change sides, the initiative promises jobs, education and protection against arrest and prosecution.

It's based on a widely held view that many fighters, unable to find jobs in one of the world's poorest countries, actually join the Taliban and other groups simply to earn money to support themselves and their families.

"Just as the insurgents can be split from ordinary Afghans who offer them tacit support, so too can the insurgency itself be divided, with foot soldiers, low and mid-level commanders reintegrated back into society," Miliband said.

Obama also spoke in a March strategy speech on Afghanistan of the need to give Afghans who've joined the Taliban "the option to choose a different course."

Some experts, however, think that there's insufficient empirical evidence to conclude that significant numbers of insurgents fight for money, and they pointed out that an earlier government-run reintegration effort proved a dismal failure.

The presence in the conservative Muslim nation of 116,000 U.S.-led mostly Christian foreign troops after more than eight years of war may be a much stronger motive for fighting for the insurgency than money, these experts said.

"I see no evidence that either we or the (Afghan government) understand the dynamics of their own society to come up with something that could work," said a U.S. diplomat who requested anonymity to speak freely on the issue.

Other factors motivating ordinary Afghans to fight include a desire to avenge the deaths of relatives or other civilians killed in U.S.-led military operations, frustration at the explosion of corruption under Karzai or anger at abuses by police or other local officials, they said.

Many experts and some U.S. officials also question whether reintegration can work when the Taliban and other insurgent groups are winning, a fact that's been repeatedly stated by Obama and his top commanders.

"At some level, to get people of consequence to flip, we basically have to make it worth their while. But they are not losing," said Christine Fair of Georgetown University. "Right now, what can we possibly offer them?"

There is a danger that guerrillas could join the process to claim cash payments, other handouts, amnesty certificates or security force jobs, but then secretly continue to support the insurgency or simply head back to the mountains, the U.S. diplomat said.

"The assumption is that once this is announced, the Taliban are going to come tumbling out of the hills," he said. "They may, but probably to take whatever they can and then head back for the hills."

The initiative's success heavily depends on hard-line elements in Pakistan's military and security services ending support for the Taliban and allied groups, whose leaders enjoy refuge, along with al Qaida, in the country's tribal region and Baluchistan province.

Many experts, U.S. and Afghan officials see little chance of that happening as long as senior Pakistanis are convinced that the only way to prevent Afghanistan from aligning with their longtime foe, India, is by supporting a return of their Taliban proxies to Kabul.

Pakistan is "pushing for power sharing with the current Afghan Taliban leadership," asserted a senior Afghan intelligence official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

U.S. and British officials have worked closely with Karzai's government on the reintegration plan.

The U.S. and its international partners will be asked to fund the program through an Afghan Reintegration Fund, which could require as much as $1 billion. They're leaving the program to Karzai to run, however, in part to help bolster his popularity following his fraud-tainted re-election in August.

Furthermore, the effort may eventually have to extend to negotiations between Karzai's government and senior insurgent leaders.

"The Afghan government needs to separate the hard-line ideologues, who are unwilling to break their links with al Qaida, and who must be pursued relentlessly, from those who can be drawn into domestic political processes," Miliband said.

Reconciliation between the government and insurgent leaders willing to break with al Qaida "is necessary for political stabilization," he said. "In Afghanistan, it will need to be led by Afghans and supported by the international community."

There may be limits, however, to how far the U.S. and its allies can be seen to be supporting these reconciliation efforts, partly because Taliban commanders deeply distrust them.

Karzai has repeatedly offered negotiations with top insurgent leaders, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, the supreme Taliban leader, who's thought to be guiding the insurgency from Pakistan's Baluchistan province.

Omar has rejected such talks. Karzai, however, may call at the London conference for Omar's name to be removed from a United Nations terrorist list in a bid to encourage the Taliban leader to reconsider.

(Roy Gutman contributed to this article from Gardez, Afghanistan.)

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