Monday, November 30, 2009

Nato tempts Taliban in from cold

When American commandos killed a Taliban commander in his mountain lair in western Afghanistan last month, they celebrated the end of the operations he had masterminded: rocket attacks on their base, suicide bombings and the kidnappings of businessmen.

They also worried that the death of Ghulam Yahya Akbari, a former mayor of Herat, might trigger revenge strikes from his heavily armed followers.

As mayor, Akbari had won popularity by nailing the ear lobes of greedy merchants to lampposts; and, as head of public works, he had brought electricity to Herat when Kabul, the capital, was in darkness six nights a week.

Three years ago, however, Akbari fell out with a new provincial governor. He took to the mountains with his 12 sons and 200 fighters, and allied himself with the Taliban. He had survived two American assassination attempts by the time he died on October 8.

The next act in the Akbari saga surprised his pursuers and supporters alike. Instead of striking back, five of his commanders and 114 soldiers approached the local office of the peace and reconciliation commission, handed in their battered Kalashnikov rifles and pledged allegiance to President Hamid Karzai.

“They’d had enough of fighting,” said Mohammed Shoaib Mojaddedi, the commission’s chief in Herat.

Even US troops who hunted down Akbari thought this was the best way forward. “We’ve been killing people in this country for eight years,” said a member of the US marine special operations unit that targeted Akbari. “We’re not going to win by killing people.”

His comment sums up a newly expanded initiative aimed at luring Taliban foot soldiers and low-level commanders away from the battlefield by offering them security and a chance of work.

President Barack Obama’s push for “reintegration”, which he is expected to highlight when he announces his strategy for the war on Tuesday, is one of the few areas of effective co-operation between Washington and Karzai’s corrupt administration. It represents a significant shift in thinking among western military officials and diplomats and includes many of the lessons learnt from Iraq.

Talking to the Taliban, which was once considered anathema, is gaining acceptance as senior generals acknowledge that military might alone will not win this war.

The initiative is being led by Major-General Richard Barrons, the British director of the newly formed force reintegration cell in Kabul. He answers directly to General Stanley McChrystal, the architect of the US strategy.

“We’re picking up local signs that a proportion of insurgents are tired of fighting,” said Barrons, sitting at his desk in the headquarters of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.

“Some are forced to fight, some are in the ranks of the Taliban because they have local grievances, some have joined only because they need to feed their family.”

The $10 a day that the Taliban offer their fighters is one of the few wages on offer here, far better than the $120 a month paid to the police. But the initiative has already persuaded hundreds of former Taliban to stop fighting. It will be stepped up next year.

Last week Barrons was keen to emphasise that the reintegration programme will be Afghan-led and from the “bottom up”. It will focus on bringing in rank-and-file soldiers and junior commanders.

The Afghan government will have to decide on what Nato commanders call “reconciliation”, the establishment of political agreement with senior Talilban leaders.

Karzai used the Muslim holiday of Eid last week to repeat the invitation in his inaugural speech to his “Taliban brothers” to “embrace their land” and join him in peace talks.

Barrons admits that this will have to be handled sensitively. “We need to make sure that those who come in have security, order and safety,” he said.

“They need to know that they won’t be targeted, or arrested, or murdered. And they need to know that they have a livelihood.”

He is well aware of the threat. In Wardak province, Abdul Jameel, commander of a small group of Taliban fighters, persuaded his men to surrender to the government in exchange for an amnesty and a return to their families.

He never got the chance to lay down his arms. Weeks after he approached the government, Jameel and several members of his family were gunned down. The story spread around Wardak, discouraging anyone who might have been tempted to follow him.

Taliban fighters are more likely to make the leap of faith if employment and security are assured.

Last Saturday, 80 Taliban militants gave up their weapons and joined the police force in Herat, accepting a government amnesty. But while Asmatullah Alizai, the police chief, was prepared to accept the men, other forces have proved reluctant to embrace their former enemies.

A squad of Afghan soldiers searching for bombs planted along a road in the village of Shinkay, east of Kabul, dived for cover last week when a battered taxi pulled up. They recognised a local Taliban fighter in the passenger seat and feared a suicide attack.

“Relax, guys,” said Rahimullah, 22, still in his scruffy Taliban uniform. He stepped out of the taxi, holding high his Kalashnikov. “Can’t you see it’s new? It’s from the government. I’ve changed sides.”

Rahimullah said he was heading to the capital, where officials had promised him a police uniform and a warrant card. It turned out to be true, and the tension dissipated.

McChrystal has decided that protecting the civilian population, rather than simply hunting down insurgents, should be a key component of the US strategy. If the people are secure enough, he believes, they will kick out the Taliban themselves.

Another of his recommendations to Obama is to “identify opportunities to reintegrate former mid- to low-level insurgent fighters into normal society by offering them a way out”.

Barrons said the programme would be tailored to local needs and planned district by district. Job offers would range from vocational training for a former Taliban who wanted work and was literate, to help with a farm if someone preferred to return to the land.

“There is no shortage of international donors,” Barrons said. He emphasised that each tribe, or area, would be treated individually, citing a village where aid went badly wrong. “The donors built a school,” said Barrons. “The problem was that the village already had a school, so they are using the building to stable their cattle. That’s what they really needed. We’re not going to tell people what they need — we’re going to ask.”

The programme faces acute challenges. It was late in starting and this has been a bad year for coalition casualties — Britain alone has lost 98 soldiers. Many Taliban now scent victory and may believe they are in a position to demand more attractive terms to stop fighting.

“A couple of years ago, the price would have been low but nobody was listening to us,” said Said Sharif Yusufi, of the reconciliation committee. “Now, the senior Taliban have big demands, like sharing in the government and ministries.”

Barrons and his team are betting on people like Ziauddin, 35, a former Taliban commander with 12 fighters who yesterday celebrated Eid with his family at his home in Shindun, a village near Herat.

He turned in his rocket-propelled-grenade launcher and nine Kalashnikovs. He has no regrets. “I was tired of this fighting, of running from one place to the other. Now I’m back in my shop, with my wife and my family. I know this is the life.”

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