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Reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan slow to win over Taliban

By Charley Keyes, CNN Senior National Security Producer
Villagers squat as an Afghanistan National Army soldier stands guard behind them, as unseen U.S. Marines search an abandoned compound belonging to an improvised explosive device maker in Sistani, Helmand Province, on May 12, 2011.
Villagers squat as an Afghanistan National Army soldier stands guard behind them, as unseen U.S. Marines search an abandoned compound belonging to an improvised explosive device maker in Sistani, Helmand Province, on May 12, 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "People know they can step out of the fight," says a British general
  • About 1,700 insurgents have entered the reintegration program, he says
  • Estimates are that as many as 25,000 Taliban fighters remain in the field
  • The killing of Osama bin Laden may convince more to turn, the general says.
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Washington (CNN) -- As the United States prepares to take some troops out of Afghanistan this July, an ambitious program to persuade Afghanistan insurgents to leave the fight has managed so far to attract only 1,700 converts over the past 10 months, according to a general leading the "reintegration" effort.

But the killing of Osama bin Laden may convince more to turn, the general says.

The United States and its allies have contributed $141 million to the program of amnesty and reintegration. And estimates are that 20,000 to 25,000 fighters remain in the field, despite efforts to persuade both Taliban leaders and foot soldiers to cross over.

"It is gaining increasing authenticity. People know they can step out of the fight," British Maj. Gen. Phil Jones said Thursday in a video link from Afghanistan to the Pentagon. He heads up the allied reintegration effort for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Jones said Afghanis have talks underway with 40 to 45 Taliban and insurgent groups, representing maybe a total of 2,000 additional fighters.

He said there had been new interest after U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan early this month. "We were talking to some officers from the (Afghanistan) National Directorate of Security this morning and they were quite clear that that the expressions of interest of low level and mid level groups to join the program has picked up considerably over the last couple of weeks." Jones said.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said soon after the raid that bin Laden's death opens the door to Taliban parting ways with al Qaeda.

"If that could happen at the same time we're keeping military pressure on the Taliban, keep them from taking back what you guys seized from them, expand the security bubble, you may actually next winter have the potential for reconciliation talks that are ... meaningful in terms of going forward, because one of the red lines for both us and the Afghan government (is) the Taliban disavowing any role with al Qaeda," Gates told Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on May 12.

Potential recruits to the reintegration program are interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted, and they can be sheltered in safe houses and receive a stipend before returning to their villages.

But Jones admitted problems with the program. "Inevitably if you start with a paper document and you have to build this airplane as you fly it, so to speak, then you are going to have challenges meeting demands."

For some fighters, leaving the battlefield can be an impossible step. "There still is a sense among a lot of the fighters that this smacks too much of surrender and their honor and dignity as fighting men ... can't quite take it as yet," Jones said. "There is still that psychology playing out there."

Another problem is what Jones described as "the predatory reach" of insurgents who cross the border from Afghanistan to punish and kill those they see as disloyal.

And he denied problems with fighters taking refuge in the program, only to return to the insurgency. "Thus far the people who have come -- the 17 hundred who have come in recent months -- have shown no signs of recidivism yet. There is no sense they are coming in to wait out the fighting season and go back," Jones said.

In the long term, success of reintegration will depend on overall military and political momentum in the country.

There are no certainties in Afghanistan -- that is one of the things we have learned over the past 10 years," Jones said, predicting a tough fighting-season in coming months.

"At its heart this is a very human process. It requires people on both sides of the divide to make really courageous and life-changing decisions."

 
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