By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 3, 2010; A10
KABUL -- The most meaningful part of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington next week may end up being talks about talks.
Karzai's advisers say one of his main goals for the May 12 meeting is winning President Obama's support for negotiating with insurgent leaders, and for a Kabul peace conference that has been delayed until after the visit.
Although Karzai appears wary of a political deal with the Taliban that might threaten his power, diplomats in Kabul say he is interested in smaller-scale negotiations with individual commanders from the Taliban and another insurgent group, Hezb-e-Islami.
The prospect of high-level talks with the Taliban still appears far off, complicated by divisions within the Afghan government, uneasiness from the United States, and no clear sign that the Taliban wants to participate.
Still, after months of delay, Karzai's government has clarified its position, sketching out a two-track plan: pursuing political accommodation with insurgent leaders, while at the same time enticing foot soldiers with jobs and foreign-funded development projects.
"One without the other is unsustainable. This is our position," said a senior Afghan official.
A draft of the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Plan, expected to be presented at the peace conference, is circulating in Kabul. It states the importance of a political settlement, but it has no road map for getting there, according to Afghan officials familiar with the document. The plan alludes vaguely to generating momentum for dialogue by removing more Taliban names from the United Nations sanctions list and offering exile to insurgents outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they said.
The bulk of the document focuses on the less controversial issue of reintegration, which involves shepherding lower-level insurgents back to society.
Under the proposal, if a Taliban member wants amnesty, he must renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution. Then he must submit to fingerprinting and retinal scans, and his neighbors or tribesmen must vouch for his sincerity. The next step would be courses in literacy and Islam, followed by a manual-labor job.
The plan envisions that provincial and district officials will reach out to insurgents with the offer. The initial focus would be in volatile provinces such as Kandahar, Helmand and Kunduz, Afghan officials said.
But there is a chasm between such proposals and what the Afghan government seems capable of accomplishing. A host of other mismanaged and underfunded Afghan programs have failed in the past to persuade large numbers of insurgents to stop fighting.
Afghan officials hope to sidestep previous failures by building more bureaucracy. Under Karzai's leadership, a "High Level Peace Council" -- including parliament members, military officers and possibly former insurgents -- would be formed to set policy on reconciliation and reintegration. Below this council, a new secretariat run by a cabinet-level chief executive would have responsibility for day-to-day management and coordinate with NATO and U.N. officials. Foreign donors have pledged about $160 million for reintegration.
Perhaps the main barrier to the success of such efforts is the deep mistrust that has developed between insurgents and the government over nearly nine years of war. Insurgents who join the reintegration program would have little protection from former comrades, and the incentives are hardly alluring.
"The fundamental problem with reintegration is the dissonance between motives of fighters and what reintegration has to offer, most of which is about job opportunities," said Matt Waldman, a Harvard University researcher who has written about reintegration and recently interviewed several current and former Taliban commanders. "They're not fighting for jobs."
Instead, he said, they are fed up with what they see as a profiteering and exclusionary government that has strayed from Islamic principles, and they oppose the presence of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in their country.
Some U.S. officials worry that the Afghan government will have problems getting the message out to its army and police, which could kill or capture those insurgents who have gained amnesty.
Many Afghans, in and out of the government, oppose any outreach to the Taliban. Within the past six weeks, both of Karzai's vice presidents, Mohammed Fahim and Karim Khalili, have said the president could be killed if the Taliban gets a foothold in the government, according to a foreign diplomat in Kabul.
Fahim and Khalili were both members of the Northern Alliance, which led the overthrow of the Taliban government with U.S. assistance in 2001. Former Northern Alliance commanders think "the whole idea of bringing [militants] in is antithetical to us: 'We fought them and won, we don't want them back,' " said a senior U.S. military official in Kabul.
Even to Afghan supporters of Taliban outreach, there is skepticism that amnesty for individual foot soldiers will change the war, particularly during a U.S. troop buildup and an upcoming military offensive in Kandahar.
U.S. military officials want "to put pressure on insurgents and try to pave the way to a political deal," said a senior Afghan official. "But killings, targeting, doesn't help. We've been killing them for the past nine years."
"You either talk of peace or you talk of war," the official said.