U.S. Tries New Tack Against Taliban

KABUL — The U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government are launching an initiative to persuade Taliban insurgents to lay down their weapons, offering jobs and protection to the militants who choose to abandon their fight.

While President Hamid Karzai’s government has been trying to woo these insurgents for years, the new program marks the first time that the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces are systematically reaching out to Taliban fighters.

The tactic comes as the U.S. prepares to announce Tuesday how many additional troops it will send to Afghanistan as part of a new strategy aimed at bringing the eight-year war to a successful end. U.S. officials also hope America’s European allies will raise their troop contributions as part of the new push.

The Afghan government has had a reconciliation program in place since 2004, and claims to have turned more than 8,000 insurgents. That program, however, is widely derided as corrupt and ineffective. Insurgents were enticed with offers of jobs but rarely received the promised assistance, leading many to rejoin the fight.

Western officials behind the new reconciliation program say they believe the majority of insurgents are fighting for money — the Taliban often pay their members — or personal grievances. Luring such men from the battlefield is a central component of America’s new counterinsurgency strategy crafted by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top allied commander here.

“It is an issue of dialogue — we need to establish respect, even if they are the enemy,” said Graeme Lamb, a retired British general who spearheaded a similar effort to turn Sunni insurgents in Iraq, and who oversees the campaign out of NATO headquarters in Kabul.

The Iraqi program split local Sunni insurgents from al Qaeda’s foreign fighters in the tribal Anbar province, recruiting many of them into paramilitary forces. It is widely credited with driving down the level of violence there, eventually allowing the U.S. to begin drawing down its forces.

President Barack Obama signed a bill in October that earmarks funds to pay former Taliban members to protect Afghan towns and villages from insurgents.

The Afghan government and coalition military officials have already begun using tribal elders and other influential figures to reach out to the Taliban in the south’s restive Helmand province. The elders negotiate on behalf of the government, and insurgents are offered jobs with the local police force. Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal said if necessary, the authorities will pay cash to those willing to lay down arms.

“It has to be a local solution, specific to each community,” Mr. Lamb said. “If you try to control everything from Kabul, you will be doomed.”

The Taliban’s senior leadership met the new reconciliation efforts with scorn. The Islamist movement is “considering this decision as a sign of weakness and complete despondency of the enemy,” Mullah Brader Akhund, the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command, said in a statement posted on jihadi Web sites. The insurgents, he added, “have not chosen this path of strife between the truth and the evil to obtain some material goals.”

Gul Wazir, a midlevel Taliban commander who fought the Americans for nearly eight years south of Kabul, has been disappointed with the Afghan central government’s current reconciliation program. When Mr. Wazir, a middle-age man with a thick, wiry beard and a row of silver teeth, decided to stop fighting in September, the government promised to protect him from his erstwhile comrades, who were threatening to kill him for defecting. It also promised a job, he says.

But no job or protection materialized, and Mr. Wazir says he was forced to flee for the relative safety of Kabul, where he spends his days looking for work. “The government hasn’t done a single thing for me,” he complains. “I am jobless and my life was better when I was fighting.”

Mr. Wazir’s predicament is common — and the current reconciliation program’s failures are further inflaming the insurgency, analysts say. “Thousands of insurgents come and renounce violence, get a card from the government, and then go back and continue fighting,” said Rafiullah Bidar, a senior official of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Afghan officials said they plan to revamp the existing reconciliation program and, together with NATO forces, create a new body that supervises the process. The new job and literacy-training programs, Mr. Lamb explained, would help ensure that reformed fighters are not “left in the cold.”

It is far from certain that the new program will produce better results, analysts say, at least as long as the Taliban retain momentum in the battlefield.

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