The United States and its allies are stepping up efforts to persuade Afghan insurgents to put down their arms by negotiating with representatives of Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban commanders and offering cash and jobs to low-level fighters, according to Pakistani, Middle Eastern and U.S. officials and analysts.
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The efforts, coupled with an increased U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, are meant to weaken the insurgency and promote a negotiated end to the region's violence.
"The strategy is to peel away so many fighters" from the insurgent chiefs that they will be left like "floating icebergs and have no one left to command," said Kenneth Katzman, an Afghanistan specialist at the Congressional Research Service.
Several Pakistani, Middle Eastern and U.S. officials said in interviews that Saudi and Pakistani officials, acting with tacit American encouragement, are talking with "second tier" Taliban leaders connected with Mullah Omar. The Washington Times reported recently that Mullah Omar has been hiding in the Pakistani metropolis of Karachi and was brought there with the knowledge of Pakistani intelligence.
"You've got a lot of players involved in the effort," said a U.S. official with knowledge of the talks, "not just within the U.S. government, but foreign partners, too."
The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, added: "U.S. intelligence isn't the lead on talking to members of the Afghan Taliban who may be interested in discussing reconciliation. But when it makes sense, the [U.S.] intelligence community is brought in for its expertise, relationships and judgment."
Such meetings were reported to have taken place in the Saudi holy city of Mecca in September 2008, but they continue elsewhere today.
Mr. Katzman said Qayyum Karzai, a brother of the Afghan president, participated in the 2008 talks. He also said there were meetings in January in Saudi Arabia and contacts in the United Arab Emirates.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Pakistan, were the only countries that recognized the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
A Western diplomat based in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Pakistani and Saudi officials are using their "connections and influence within Afghan Taliban to elicit some meaningful way to end the deadlock."
A senior Pakistani official who is familiar with the talks and also asked not to be named said that "the U.S. is trying to leverage the Taliban in order to find a resolution to the war in accordance with President Obama's strategy."
Saudi Embassy officials in Washington declined to confirm or deny the talks. But Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman, said the Obama administration supports "efforts towards reconciliation with the Taliban as long as certain criteria are met."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out those criteria in a speech in July. "We and our Afghan allies stand ready to welcome anyone supporting the Taliban who renounces al Qaeda, lays down their arms, and is willing to participate in the free and open society that is enshrined in the Afghan Constitution," she said.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who headed Mr. Obama's first Afghanistan-Pakistan review, said such approaches "are worth exploring, but I would not expect to see tangible progress until the security situation changes" in Afghanistan.
"It's highly unlikely that people will switch from the perceived winning side," he said. "If you change the momentum on the battlefield and the Taliban is no longer seen as the winner, you may see the fractures come to the front."
The United States hopes to achieve that change of momentum by adding 30,000 troops to its force in the country.
Mr. Katzman and Mr. Riedel said it would be easiest to make a deal with followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahedeen fighter against the Soviet Union who has already authorized some of his followers to join the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Katzman said little progress has been made with Mullah Omar or another insurgent leader, Jalabuddin Haqqani.
Beyond talks with militant commanders, a second element of the U.S. strategy is to lure rank-and-file fighters with jobs and cash.
Mr. Obama, in his speech last month outlining his new Afghanistan strategy, spoke of "reintegration" of Taliban fighters into the Afghan army and police.
In testimony last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said a force reintegration cell had been created to try to identify fighters who could be induced to join Afghan security forces.
Mr. Katzman said the cell, under the command of British Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons, would try to "standardize what a Taliban person gets if he surrenders."
U.S. officials say that starting salaries for Afghans in high-combat areas are being raised from $180 a month to $240 to better compete with the Taliban, which pays fighters $250 to $300 a month.
Defense Department spokesman Army Lt. Col. Mark Wright said the Pentagon is supporting commanders to win over the "$5- and $10-a-day Taliban-for-hire fighter."
"These fighters are not ideologues," he said. "So we'll use the [Commanders Emergency Response Program] money to bring them over so they don't feel like the Taliban is their only place to turn to. We don't necessarily pay them directly but can use the CERP for land projects and other necessities to win them over and reintegrate them."
Col. Wright added that U.S. forces also would focus on improving security because Afghans "are not going to come work for the U.S. or Afghan government if they feel their family is going to be threatened by the Taliban for their actions."
"This is a multi-pronged process," he said. "We need talks with Taliban, enhanced security and continuous efforts to lure back the low-level Taliban fighter."
Mr. Karzai, whose re-election was certified last month, has said repeatedly that negotiations with the Taliban could help end the war.
"The fight against terrorism and extremism cannot be won by fighting alone," he told the Associated Press recently.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, said U.S. strategy is to "split up" the Taliban leadership. Mr. Nawaz expressed doubt, however, that Mullah Omar could be won over, calling him "the hardest nut to crack."
Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister and presidential candidate, said that "there's a national consensus that we need a political framework for peacemaking."
Mr. Ghani told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington last week, "We've been attributing more unity to the insurgency than exists."
Many Afghans are concerned, however, that the Taliban is simply playing for time in anticipation of a U.S. withdrawal.
"What happens five years from now?" asked an Afghan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Will the Afghan people be under a centralized democratic government or the Taliban? Can the two live in harmony? It isn't possible."
Western diplomats in Pakistan said the Obama administration would allow the Taliban a role in the Afghan government but not a restoration of their harsh Islamic regime.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani authority on the Taliban, said the militant group aims to restore that regime, which severely restricted the rights of women, forced men to wear beards and barred music and most other forms of entertainment.
A Kabul-based Afghan journalist named Ghaforzoy told The Times, "Of late, there are indications from the Taliban that they by posing as recalcitrant they want to win the lion's share in a future broad-based government."
Pakistan, which helped create the Taliban in the 1990s to defend Pakistani interests in Afghanistan against rival India, clearly wants to preserve its long investment in the militants, said Imran Khan, an analyst based in Peshawar.
"If Pakistan is ensured ... a friendly government in Kabul with minimum influence of India, it can do wonders to bring peace to Afghanistan," Mr. Khan said.
He said Pakistani interests in Afghanistan could best be safeguarded if a government includes Taliban and Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami group.
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