War Plan for Karzai: Reach Out to Talibanhttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/
LONDON — Afghanistan’s president declared Thursday that reaching out to the Taliban’s leadership would be a centerpiece of his plan to end the eight-year-old war in his country, setting in motion a risky diplomatic gambit that could aggravate frictions with the United States.
A 65-nation conference here intended to muster money and support for an Afghan war strategy instead exposed divisions between the Afghan government and its allies over the timetable for drawing down foreign forces and whether and how to reconcile with the leaders of the Taliban insurgency.
“We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers,” President Hamid Karzai said. In the coming weeks, he said, he will invite Taliban leaders to a tribal assembly to try to persuade them to lay down their weapons and join the government.
Mr. Karzai’s proposal went much further than the strategy preferred by many American officials, who favor luring back low- and midlevel Taliban fighters. The Obama administration is in the middle of a spirited debate over the implications of negotiating with top Taliban leaders who sheltered Osama bin Laden and still have ties to Al Qaeda.American officials pointedly did not talk about “reconciliation” on Thursday, and they were caught off guard by Mr. Karzai’s plans for a tribal peace conference. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did not endorse Mr. Karzai’s strategy, though she voiced sympathy for his ultimate goal.
“You don’t make peace with your friends,” Mrs. Clinton said after the meeting, which reflected a growing urgency to wind down the West’s military involvement. “You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency.”
Still, the Afghan government’s ambitious plan to lure back the Taliban — foot soldiers and commanders — faces equally probing questions at home. Across Afghan society, there are grave doubts about how the Taliban could be brought into the fold.
Dangling jobs and money before the Taliban could breed resentment among other poor Afghans who have little to show for their loyalty to the government. And it could deepen ethnic divisions with minorities like the Tajiks and Hazaras, who fought the Taliban for 15 years. They may see the rewards as an unfair windfall for the Pashtuns, who make up most of the Taliban’s recruits.
Among former Taliban members who have taken part in previous government reconciliation programs, there is deep skepticism that a new program will be any better than earlier versions, which left them impoverished, jobless and at risk of being attacked by their former comrades.
“Everyone understands that this ‘reconciliation’ process is just a name because they leave us in the lurch,” said Mullah Abdul Majed, a former Taliban commander who laid down his weapons in 2008 only to find himself abandoned by the government he had hoped to join.
Mullah Majed’s story illustrates the pitfalls. After laying down their weapons, he and 12 of his fellow fighters were each given about $140 and promised housing. When they returned to their home province, Kandahar, they found no money, no housing, no jobs and no protection from Taliban reprisals.
“The Taliban are warning us that ‘If you remain loyal to the government, we will kill you,’ ” he said. “So we can’t go outside the city to work. Last year one of our friends was killed by Taliban, and one was injured.”
Mullah Majed and a friend, who also signed up for the previous reconciliation program, are on the verge of returning to the Taliban because they cannot find work to provide for their families, the mullah said.
This time, with the NATO forces backing the plan, it will be easier to ensure that the fighters are not arrested, Afghan officials said. “There has to be proper protection for them,” said Shaida Mohammed Abdali, the Afghan deputy national security adviser. “There has to be amnesty, a guarantee for them that once they are reconciled, they can have a life like all others.”
The London conference was intended to help cure some of those problems. It raised $140 million for a fund intended to ease the reintegration of Taliban fighters. Some $500 million was pledged in all, but it is unclear whether all that money will materialize.
Mrs. Clinton praised Japan for giving $50 million to the fund, but she said the United States had no immediate plans to follow. The Treasury Department would have to approve such financing, because it classifies the Taliban as a terrorist organization.
The Pentagon is authorized to use its funds for that purpose: American military commanders, for example, agreed to steer $1 million in development projects to a large Pashtun tribe in eastern Afghanistan in return for its pledge to back the government and battle the Taliban.
A senior American official said that Taliban members who took part in the peace conference should disavow ties to Al Qaeda, but whether top Taliban leaders can be persuaded to jettison their longtime Qaeda allies remains uncertain. Mr. Karzai laid down no such conditions, and the traditions governing such a meeting, known as a jirga, give him wide latitude about whom to invite.
For their part, the Taliban leaders have rejected talk of an olive branch, saying their fighters will not be influenced by financial inducements and will not join talks until foreign forces leave Afghanistan. American officials said that was evidence of the Taliban’s insecurity.
This week, the United Nations removed the names of five Taliban members from its blacklist — a move considered important because it would allow them to travel to take part in negotiations. Mr. Karzai said he wanted to see more names taken off the list.
He also asked for help from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose country has longstanding ties to elements of the Taliban, to help broker negotiations. And he appealed to Pakistan, where many Taliban leaders have sought haven in the rugged region bordering Afghanistan. Iran was invited to the meeting but did not attend.
While the differences over reconciling with the Taliban dominated the meeting, that was not the only divide. Even before it began, Mr. Karzai opened another chasm with his allies, once again raising the prospect of a far more drawn-out foreign troop presence before Afghans would be able to assume full responsibility for their own security.
It could take 5 to 10 years for Afghan forces to take over from the American-led coalition, he told the BBC in an interview, and even longer to end his country’s dependence on financial aid to sustain its military.
That is far longer than President Obama’s goal to begin drawing down American forces by the summer of 2011. Other Western leaders, too, have been pushing for a tighter timetable. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain noted that targets had been set for the total Afghan Army and police strength to rise above 300,000 by October 2011. Allied commanders have said that could take three years or more.