Karzai's Taliban reconciliation strategy raises ethnic, rights concerns at home

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 4, 2010

KABUL -- Political resistance is building in Afghanistan to President Hamid Karzai's two-track plan to end the war by negotiating with Taliban leaders while enticing their foot soldiers with the promise of jobs and development projects.

Decades of war have shaped a broad consensus that fighting cannot end the conflict in Afghanistan, but such early opposition to reconciliation with insurgents points to the difficult road ahead for a process Karzai has deemed a top priority in his second term.

Some worry that funneling millions of dollars into Taliban-held villages in the south could unfairly benefit ethnic Pashtuns and reward those who have fought the government. Others fear that accommodating the Taliban leadership could bring a retreat from women's rights. Former Taliban officials, meanwhile, say that without a shift in American policy, their commanders are unlikely to negotiate with the U.S.-backed government.

"There is no clear strategy for negotiations," said Abdul Salam Zaeef, who served as ambassador to Pakistan under the Taliban government. "The Taliban were deceived so many times. They will not be deceived again and again. They need concrete guarantees."

Although U.S. officials have expressed general support for Karzai's initiative, the two governments disagree on the way forward. U.S. officials prefer to focus on low-level fighters while hoping that an additional 30,000 troops can pummel the Taliban into a weaker negotiating position. Karzai's government, on the other hand, has stressed the need to reach out to the Islamist movement's leadership. Karzai spent Wednesday in Saudi Arabia seeking the kingdom's help in encouraging Taliban representatives to attend an upcoming conference in Kabul, according to a senior Afghan official.

"It's questionable why the United States just wants to reintegrate the low level of the Taliban and not the leadership," said Sebghatullah Sanjar, Karzai's policy chief. "That's something they are concerned about, but from the Afghan side, we are trying to include everyone in negotiations."

The details of the Afghan government's reconciliation strategy have not been worked out, but Karzai laid out the principles at an international conference in London last week. Among its conditions for negotiation, the Afghan government wants Taliban members to renounce violence, sever ties with al-Qaeda and respect the constitution.

The international community has pledged $140 million for a trust fund to pay for economic development and jobs programs to encourage fighters to switch sides. Previous reconciliation programs aimed at lower-level fighters were plagued by corruption and mismanagement. The United States has not contributed to the fund but will use military funding to support what officials call "reintegration."

American and other international officials stress that the money is not intended to buy off individuals but to fund projects -- road-building, agriculture programs and job training -- that benefit villages and can entice fighters to give up violence. The strategy is aimed at limiting fraudulent claims of being a Taliban fighter in order to receive benefits.

But across the political spectrum in Afghanistan, groups have raised concerns about pushing ahead with both low-level reintegration and talks with the Taliban leadership.

Ethnic minorities worry that international money intended to woo Taliban fighters will favor mainly Pashtun areas where the insurgency is most virulent.

"The money will not help, and it will give more power to the Taliban," said Sayyid Agha Hussain Fazil Sanjaraki, a spokesman for the National Front, a party led by Tajiks from the north. "Americans should not waste their money providing job opportunities for the Taliban, they should create job opportunities for all Afghans."

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