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New Reconciliation Strategy Advocated To Bring Taliban Groups Into Kabul Fold

Are Taliban fighters more likely to join the political process if allowed to remain armed?
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said this week that "grassroots initiatives" could help split the ranks of the Taliban and get many of its fighters to stop fighting U.S., NATO-led, and Afghan government forces.

Echoing remarks made earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Miliband said on July 27 that success "means, in the long-term, an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan which draws away conservative Pashtun nationalists, separating those who want Islamic rule locally from those committed to violent jihad globally and gives them a sufficient role in local politics that they leave the path of confrontation with their government."

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke has said the Taliban members who could be brought into the political process in Afghanistan are those who joined the insurgency out of pragmatism rather than for militant ideological reasons.

"Over 70 percent of the people fighting with the Taliban are not ideologically committed to the terrible principles of Mullah Omar or Al-Qaeda," Holbrooke said.

"They are farmers without jobs. They are young kids with guns. What Secretary Clinton said and David Miliband said was that there's room for this kind of reintegration if people renounce Al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and join the Afghan political process."
I think it is an attempt to prepare the ground for negotiations with the leadership of the Taliban -- or part of it.

Analysts agree that most Taliban fighters could be convinced to stop fighting and start supporting Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government if they were offered financial incentives and guarantees about their own safety.

Listening To The Taliban

Antonio Giustozzi, an expert on Afghanistan at the London School of Economics, says there is nothing new about the idea of reconciliation with Taliban elements deemed "moderate." But Giustozzi says he sees "a different twist this time," what he calls "something bigger."

"I think it is an attempt to prepare the ground for negotiations with the leadership of the Taliban, or part of it," Giustozzi says, "just excluding individuals or networks within the Taliban who have directly compromised with Al-Qaeda or with the more radical international Islamist networks."

Giustozzi says he does not think U.S. or British officials believe that corruption and warlordism can be eliminated from within Afghanistan's central government. That, he says, makes Taliban fighters wary of surrendering their weapons and returning to civilian life.

"That's why we are shifting from a perspective of reconciling individuals and small groups, commanders with their retinue of followers, toward a wider perspective of a political reconciliation -- which essentially reconciles the majority of the Taliban, the mainstream Taliban as a movement, as a political organization and just excluding a minority of Taliban who are too extreme to be reconciled," Giustozzi says.

"Reconciling them as a movement, as a whole, with significant political concessions and probably maintaining their armed force at least for some time would present a strong incentive for them to reconcile. They would guarantee their own security. And therefore they would feel more confident that they are not at the mercy of their own rivals and enemies within the security apparatus."

Hajji Sayed Daud, an Afghan political commentator who heads the Afghan Media Resource Center in Kabul, says that talks that began in Saudi Arabia last year between some Taliban leaders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's elder brother, Abdul Qayum Karzai, are continuing.

Daud says recent events and statements suggest "that the international community and President Karzai want to reach an understanding with the Taliban whereby they will not attack the presidential election process." He says that they are telling the Taliban that after the election, they will be ready to talk and listen to Taliban demands.

Defining 'Moderate'

Giustozzi, author of the book "Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop," has documented the resurgence of the Taliban and how its membership has changed since late 2001. He says military strategists hoping to split today's Taliban movement need to understand the recent history of reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.

"This talk about 'moderate Taliban' negotiations, reconciliation has been going on at least since 2003 -- in fact, informally, even earlier," Giustozzi says. "Practically as the Taliban regime was collapsing, the Pakistanis were already lobbying for the inclusion of 'moderate Taliban' in the new political order in Afghanistan. And there were some attempts by some of these 'moderate Taliban' to actually form a political party and try to become part of the political process."

Giustozzi says one problem with early reconciliation efforts was that only Taliban supporters who had not fought against NATO or Afghan forces since the collapse of the Taliban regime were considered eligible as "moderates." As a result, he says, an initial series of high-profile defections did not change the security situation on the ground.

"After that, there were other contacts with the Taliban -- mostly indirect contacts. Mainly, it was an attempt by the Americans and the British to lure over to the government side individual field commanders. Small commanders of the Taliban," Giustozzi says.

"And that, too, achieved some local successes. Most notably, Mullah Salam in [the Helmand Province district of] Musa Qala is the best-known of these reconciled Taliban commanders. There have been others who are smaller. Particularly in Helmand. The British were very active in this -- more active in this than anybody else -- in 2006 and 2007. But the impact on the ground, again, has been very limited."
Even if the political leadership might give the green light and the British or the Americans might be in favor, still there are quite a lot of people within the security apparatus in Kabul who are against this kind of reconciliation. And they do what they can to sabotage it.

Giustozzi says many of the Taliban commanders and individual fighters who surrendered to the government earlier were killed or arrested or have simply disappeared. The stories of what happened to them are discouraging militants from joining the reconciliation process today.

"There have been also cases of commanders or individuals -- rank-and-file fighters -- who reconciled with the government and then have been arrested by the security services or by the police," Giustozzi says.

"Even if the political leadership might give the green light and the British or the Americans might be in favor, still there are quite a lot of people within the security apparatus in Kabul who are against this kind of reconciliation. And they do what they can to sabotage it."

Afghanistan's government last weekend struck a truce with a group of Taliban fighters in the northwestern province of Badghis close to the border with Turkmenistan. The deal is intended to provide stability in the area ahead of the August 20 presidential election. The peace deal allows Taliban militants to take part in the elections.

If the truce holds, experts say it could be the first step toward a new framework on reconciliation with larger groups of Taliban fighters and their commanders.

RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique contributed to this story