One of the critical components of President Obama’s new Afghan strategy is an effort to persuade large groups of Taliban to change sides.
The U.S. military is already looking for opportunities to motivate mid- and low-level Taliban to lay down arms. The premise: Many Taliban have joined up because of lack of jobs or services, or tribal conflicts. If these grievances are addressed, tribal elders might be willing to stop fighting.
“Reintegration is hugely important, incredibly important,” the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told me in an interview. One of the purposes of the U.S. troop surge is to provide time for such reintegration to happen, since it would seriously weaken overall Taliban momentum.
Yet any effort to flip large numbers of Taliban cannot work without leadership by the Afghan government and without cooperation from Pakistan, where many Afghan Taliban hide.
We’ll soon see whether Afghan leadership is forthcoming. Some time in December, Mohammed Masoom Stanikzai, adviser on reintegration to President Hamid Karzai, is due to produce a new program to entice Afghan insurgents to give up the fight. “Now there is a broad consensus within the Afghan government and the international community that military means is not the only solution,” Stanikzai told me recently in Kabul. “The key is to have a common position on … the parameters of a deal.”
However, it’s not yet clear whether the Afghan government will join with U.S. and other international officials on serious reintegration efforts. Karzai talks about reconciliation, but a previous Afghan government program was a dismal failure. Money to help insurgents transition back to normal life was misappropriated or stolen. Promises to give returnees jobs were broken.
In the past, Karzai has been suspicious of international efforts to woo Taliban back into society. One year ago, Michael Semple, a European Union official with broad Afghan experience, was arrested and expelled from the country for trying to persuade some Taliban elements in Helmand province to switch sides.
Karzai may now be more open to joint efforts. Stanikzai says he is in contact with Sir Graeme Lamb, the retired British special forces commander who is McChrystal’s adviser on reintegration.
Lamb negotiated with insurgents in Northern Ireland and in Iraq. He and U.S. commanders on the ground are exploring similar possibilities in Afghanistan — offering economic aid and listening to local grievances. But, says Stanikzai, Lamb “agrees that the Afghan government should be in the lead.”
Afghan participation is essential to ensure that those who change sides will be protected from retribution by their former Taliban compatriots or by villagers whom they’ve alienated. Returnees must also be protected against elements within the Afghan intelligence service who still want to kill Pashtun Taliban. “We have to give them guarantees they are safe in their villages,” Stanikzai said. “We need reconciliation within the community.”
Stanikzai rightly believes that another critical element of reintegration will be Pakistani cooperation across the border. “Otherwise it will be very difficult to generate real momentum here,” he said. “Even if some Taliban surrender here, there could be new recruitment in Pakistan.”
Yet the Pakistani military is reluctant to move against senior Afghan Taliban based on their soil whom they think may return to power in Kabul. Pakistani officials are more eager for the United States to start talks with top Afghan Taliban leaders, such as Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Stanikzai rejects the idea of talking to big Taliban right now. “If we can take some mid- and lower-level Taliban out of the fighting first (by reintegration), it can reduce the pressure,” he said. “If you start from a weak position, why would they (big Taliban) join talks? We have to put real pressure on them to make peace.”
After speaking with Stanikzai, one can envision a reintegration strategy that would have impact: an Afghan government program to provide jobs for — and protect — Taliban who lay down arms; a U.S. program to identify, and help protect, tribes willing to reintegrate Taliban members; and the use of surge troops to create space and safety to flip numbers of Taliban.
And finally a broader strategy to entice some senior Taliban commanders into political negotiations — if they break with al-Qaida and agree to enter the Afghan political system. But the latter piece only works if Pakistan squeezes Taliban leaders on its side of the border.
The first stage in such a virtuous circle requires that a serious Afghan government plan be put forward this month, as promised. Let’s see if the Karzai government and Minister Stanikzai produce it on time.