x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US confident Taliban will join mainstream Afghan politics

Officials envision a programme in which thousands of Taliban fighters, who are losing popularity with Afghans, lay down their arms.

WASHINGTON // The top US diplomat in Afghanistan is optimistic that a new Taliban reintegration programme, soon to be unveiled by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, will entice greater numbers of Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and join mainstream politics. Without providing specifics about the programme or the incentives that may be offered, Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said he believes the Afghan government is in a good position to win the allegiance of some Taliban fighters, particularly those more motivated by money than politics.

"They're fighting with [the Taliban] either because they've been intimidated and scared into doing so, or because they're getting paid," he said in a briefing with the foreign press on Wednesday, noting that those operating in areas of heavy combat are more likely to cross over. "The area where the fighting is heaviest is likely to be where you'll have the most productivity. If they're getting hammered in a firefight, they're going to say, 'What am I doing here? I'm not an al Qa'eda follower.'"

At the conference on Afghanistan in London last month, attended by dozens of nations, Mr Karzai and his top security adviser, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, outlined the broad contours of the reintegration plan, saying it will focus on providing security and jobs for Taliban defectors. They have not yet provided specifics and Mr Holbrooke declined to discuss the programme in detail, deferring to Mr Karzai.

"It's got to be an Afghan-led programme," he said. The international community so far has pledged US$140 million (Dh514.2m) to finance the programme's first year. Some estimate that the reintegration programme could cost more than $1 billion. Convincing members of the Taliban to flip sides has proven difficult in the past, complicated by the Afghan government's inability to guarantee security or salaries to those who defect. No one knows for sure how many Taliban fighters have done so, but the number is thought to be small. The United Nations estimated that 170 came over to the government late last year.

Afghan government officials have said they envision a programme in which thousands of Taliban fighters lay down their arms, and US officials believe that a large percentage of Taliban are ready to change allegiances. A recent poll by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV found that 42 per cent of Afghans now blame the country's violence on the Taliban, up sharply from 27 per cent a year ago. Just 17 per cent blame the United States, Nato or the Afghan government or army, well down from 36 per cent. More than two thirds now see the Taliban as the greatest threat to Afghanistan, a new high.

Such trends are positive signs for the White House and US military commanders who have said that reintegration is an essential part of their new war strategy. Announcing his decision in December to deploy 30,000 additional troops, Barack Obama said that he "will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens".

Some observers, such as Kai Eide, the United Nations special representative to Afghanistan, believe the reintegration process will be complicated by the various and complex allegiances of Taliban fighters. "I don't believe it's as simple as saying that these are people who are unemployed, and if we find them employment they will go our way," Mr Eide said in an interview with The New York Times. Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised the US army in Afghanistan, said it is difficult to predict the impact of the reintegration programme in advance, largely because it has not been tried before.

"It depends on how well structured they are, it depends on what's taking place in a given region, it depends on the attitudes of both individual fighters and midlevel cadres and leaders," he said. "Until you have a truly active programme and until you have people who can experiment with different ways of doing it at different levels, you obviously can't succeed." However, he said, the Taliban's emerging weakness could provide an opening.

"The Taliban isn't that strong, it isn't that popular, it basically has expanded into a power vacuum," he said. "If we can end that power vacuum it may well be possible, even with relatively limited efforts, to achieve significant success." Some are looking at efforts to improve Afghanistan's agriculture sector as a possible tool in reintegration. The US-led effort to steer Afghan farmers toward high-value crops such as pomegranates - which US officials say can be more profitable than opium poppies - is expected to create thousands of jobs in Afghanistan and undercut a major source of Taliban funding, US officials said on Wednesday.

Appearing alongside Mr Holbrooke in a separate press conference, Tom Vilsack, the US agriculture secretary, said Afghans "would much rather be farmers than fighters". "This is an economic issue," Mr Vilsack said. "The agriculture programme is a major part of what we are trying to do," Mr Holbrooke said, noting that there is no official link between the agriculture and reintegration programmes. "If things work correctly, all of these things will be mutually reinforcing. There will be no single factor that will turn the tide."

Mr Holbrooke reiterated his strong opposition to removing Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, from the United Nation's terrorist blacklist, an idea that some Afghan officials have floated in recent days. He also dismissed some reports that the US was involved in reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Mr Karzai has made several overtures to the Taliban and is hoping Saudi Arabia will facilitate the talks.

"Let me be clear," Mr Holbrooke said, "the United States is not in direct contact with the Taliban." Though the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, seemed to make a major concession last month when he described the Taliban as part of the Afghan "political fabric", Mr Holbrooke and other officials have said the US is unlikely to participate in direct talks until the Taliban renounces al Qa'eda. @Email:sstanek@thenational.ae