U.S. warms to reconciliation, persuasion of Taliban
The U.S. military has begun retooling efforts to persuade Afghan insurgents to disarm or switch sides.
Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has begun retooling efforts to persuade Afghan insurgents to disarm or switch sides, a tactic that is a centerpiece of the new Obama administration war strategy but has been beset by problems in the battlefield.
The overhaul comes amid criticism that the push to "flip" Taliban fighters — persuading them to disarm and "reintegrate" into society — has lagged, most notably because the international military command in Afghanistan has been unprepared to strike deals with fighters offering to lay down their weapons, senior officials said.
Under pressure from the White House, officials have begun work to rejuvenate that effort. This month, an admiral overseeing detention systems renewed work to use the U.S. and Afghan prisons to help teach former Taliban fighters basic skills and entice them to return to Afghan society.
At the same time, senior military officials believe the influx of new troops into eastern and southern Afghanistan could sap the will to fight among less-committed foot soldiers.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking in Turkey, said Monday that the United States and other countries involved in Afghanistan who were once resistant to reconciliation with the Taliban, now back his plan to persuade some extremists to lay down their weapons.
The assertion came ahead of an international conference Thursday in London on Afghanistan that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said would pledge funding for the Afghan peace plan, despite concerns about state corruption and weak authority. The talks are to consider future military and political strategy in Afghanistan, including the Afghan government's proposal to pay some Taliban fighters to return to mainstream society.
Karzai, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and delegates from about 70 countries are attending the London talks.
Karzai said he will seek support for his reconciliation plan and press for the removal of some Taliban figures from a U.N. sanctions list, which imposes punitive measures such as a travel ban and assets freeze on individuals.
During the lengthy White House strategy review last fall, administration officials pushed the military to begin a process to flip rank-and-file insurgents, a tactic used in Iraq.
The approach would target at-large Taliban fighters as well as those who have been imprisoned in Afghanistan.
The White House strategy envisioned a process with two stages: reintegration, or returning former fighters to society; and reconciliation, or mending differences between extremist leaders and the Afghan government and persuading the rebels to take part in peaceful political life.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, visiting India and Pakistan last week, acknowledged it was unlikely Afghan officials would ever reconcile with many former leaders of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, such as Mullah Mohammed Omar.
"The Taliban, we recognize, are part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point," Gates said. Gates acknowledged the United States needs to do a better job protecting those fighters who disarm.
"The Taliban foot soldiers fight for the Taliban for money or because their families have been intimidated," Gates said. "There have been instances where those who have tried to reintegrate, to go back to their families, their families have been killed."
Last fall, one insurgent who led a group of about 50 fighters offered to lay down his arms if his family and the families of his lieutenants were relocated to the relative safety of Kabul, said one senior U.S. official, describing the episode on condition of anonymity.
However, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which fielded the demand, was unable to accommodate the request, and the rebel returned to the battlefield with his fighters.
Since then, military officials said, a new process has been instituted to negotiate with fighters and meet such demands.
A key to improving the effort is reforming Afghan prisons. Vice Admiral Robert Harward Jr., the commander of the military's Joint Task Force 435, which assumed oversight of the prison system Jan. 7, said a crucial part of his job is to separate hard-core Islamic extremists from detainees who can be reintegrated into Afghan society.
"Are they an irreconcilable who remains hostile?" Harward said. "Or are they an accidental guerrilla who, with a little education, can be returned to a tribe and become a part of Afghan society?"
For the latter group, Harward plans to beef up education and training programs, teaching detainees to learn masonry, cooking, sewing and other skills.
"If we can give them a skill, when they come back to their village they can contribute and, at the end of the day, have a higher purpose in life," he said.
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