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In Afghanistan, experts question strategy of reconciliation for insurgents

Weapons are lined up after a group of Taliban fighters surrendered to the government of Herat province in Afghanistan last week.
Weapons are lined up after a group of Taliban fighters surrendered to the government of Herat province in Afghanistan last week. (Majid/getty Images)
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By Karen DeYoung
Monday, October 19, 2009

"Not every Taliban is an extremist ally," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week. One of the primary tasks of President Obama's Afghanistan strategy review, she said, is "trying to sort out who is the real enemy."

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Trying to persuade those insurgents deemed less extreme to lay down their arms or switch sides will be a major component of the Obama administration's new approach, regardless of whether the president approves the massive troop deployments requested by his military commander, according to administration officials.

But sorting the "reconcilables" -- what the U.S. military calls the "little T" -- from the "big T" of hard-core Taliban members is no small task. Even if the Americans and Europeans are able to tell them apart, neither they nor Afghan officials have a comprehensive plan to persuade them to stop fighting.

And many analysts, particularly in the CIA, do not believe that a substantial "little T" exists among what the agency estimates is a total of about 25,000 fighters in the Afghan Taliban and related insurgent groups. "Small pockets of Taliban members may be convinced under certain conditions to enter into such a process," a U.S. counterterrorism official said, but "it's an uphill battle for most."

"I'm not saying you can't buy off a few guys or get a faction to turn," he added, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. "But as a general matter, our view is that it would be a very difficult thing to accomplish." The prospects for reconciliation, he said, are "dim and grim."

A better paycheck

Others within the administration and the military are convinced that many fighters, even if culturally and religiously attuned to the Taliban, are doing a job that they might abandon for more money. "Our analysis," and that of the Afghan government, Clinton said in an interview with ABC's "Nightline," is that "there are people, quote 'Taliban,' who are hiding because they get paid to fight. They have no other way of making a living . . . [and] get paid more to be in the Taliban than they get paid to be, like, say, a local police officer."

As it did in Iraq, where Sunni insurgents were given $300 a month to join U.S.-backed neighborhood security forces, the military is developing a program to put lapsed Afghan insurgents on the payroll, albeit at a cheaper rate than the Iraqis. Although potential recruits are often referred to in policy debates as "$10-a-day Taliban," the stipend will probably be slightly better than the $120 monthly police salary.

"Economic opportunity, especially job creation, is a critical part of reintegrating the foot-soldier into normal life," Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote in an assessment of the deteriorating war delivered to Obama last month.

McChrystal drew a distinction between "reconciliation" -- which he defined as "high-level political settlements" negotiated by the Afghan government -- and "reintegration," offered by the international military coalition.

"As coalition operations proceed," he wrote, "insurgents will have three choices: fight, flee or reintegrate. ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] must identify opportunities to reintegrate former mid-to-low level insurgent fighters into normal society by offering them a way out" with "reasonable incentives . . . possibly including the provision of employment and protection."

The authority to give insurgents the option of being "killed, captured or reintegrated" would be decentralized to ISAF field commanders, in coordination with the Afghan government.

A number of experts said McChrystal has too few troops to credibly promise any of those choices. Obama, they argued, cannot achieve reconciliation or reintegration without committing to a larger U.S. force.


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