A Taliban fighter shows his weapons as he surrenders at a ceremony in Herat.… (Reza Shirmohammadi / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — 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.