U.S. sets its sights on Taliban's 'little T'
Experts question plan to find, sway group's less extreme members

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."

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.

"The simplest way to put it is that whether they're getting paid or they're deeply ideologically committed, they all want to be on the winning side," said former CIA clandestine officer Henry A. Crumpton, who led the agency's Afghanistan campaign that overthrew the Taliban in 2001. Whatever their motivation, he said, most insurgents are "thinking about who's going to have the momentum and who's going to have the stamina."

"That would argue for putting in more troops, so we can regain the momentum," Crumpton said. "It's not as simple as paying people off. There's a lot of pride and prestige and honor at play . . . and you have to factor in tribal loyalties."

'A way of life'

Reconciliation does require "distinguishing the 'good' Taliban from the 'bad,' " Afghanistan expert Michael Semple wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine this summer. But the insurgent movement "contains legions of men who fight for reasons that have nothing to do with Islamic zealotry. For many, insurgency is a way of life. . . . And even if many fighters are fundamentally nonideological, membership in an insurgent network -- in which elders and peers tell them that opposing foreign forces is virtuous -- offers a kind of respectability."

Crumpton and Semple noted that scores of Taliban leaders -- some now in the Afghan government -- defected between 2002 and 2004, when the United States had military momentum and Taliban forces were on the run.

But experts, some of whom have briefed Obama or his senior advisers, differ on how to approach the ranks of insurgent leaders from just below the top political level to the local commanders who control little more than their own valley or village.

One senior U.S. military official, among the relative few to question McChrystal's call for more troops to be deployed to Afghan population centers, said no Afghan-wide reintegration plan was likely to succeed. Rather than beginning with a dubious threat of overwhelming force, he advised, reconciliation should start from the bottom up, with groups of trained military and intelligence specialists who understand the country's cultural and ethnic disparities spreading out and engaging in the painstaking work of making local deals.

Others suggest a top-down strategy in which respected Afghans within or outside the government negotiate with more senior insurgent leaders, possibly at their headquarters in Pakistan. "Simply putting out a few incentives for low-level people simply doesn't deliver," said another Afghan expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You have to have commanders cut deals and bring in whole networks."

Still others believe that the United States and its allies have deceived themselves into thinking the Taliban and its allies -- the Haqqani and Hezb-e Islami groups -- can be broken into pieces by either carrots or sticks. "It's a nationally organized movement," said Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The Taliban are not this kind of loosely organized group, doing whatever they want at the local level. It's wishful thinking. Not true. Dead wrong."

"Take the Taliban seriously," Dorronsoro advised. "Stop thinking that they are this kind of losers. These guys are really, really good. . . . They know why they are fighting."

Although the Afghan government has its own reconciliation program, it is woefully underfunded and has little political heft. President Hamid Karzai has said that anyone who is willing to stop shooting and respect the constitution is welcome. So far, he's had virtually no takers.

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