The Afghan government has moved so slowly to recruit Taliban defectors that U.S. and Afghan officials say they are losing an opportunity to capitalize on hard-won military gains and the death of Osama bin Laden.

Interest among war-weary Taliban foot soldiers and low-ranking commanders in switching sides is at an all-time high, the officials said, but the Afghan government’s inability to provide safe houses, job-training classes and other services aimed at reintegrating former combatants has prevented local authorities from offering amnesty to many fighters.

In Kandahar province, a hub of Taliban activity that has been a focus of U.S. military operations, the governor is taking the extraordinary step of urging insurgent leaders to delay their surrender.

“We are not prepared the way we should be,” said the governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who has been approached in recent weeks by emissaries for mid-level Taliban leaders. “We are telling them to wait a little bit.”

Although much of the problem stems from political disagreements and bureaucratic delays within the Afghan government, the United States has been unable to provide a stopgap solution because of the way the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is interpreting congressional restrictions on the use of reconstruction funds for Afghanistan.

The Kabul government does not dispute that it has been tardy. “Program execution has been slow as compared to the urgency of the needs of the provinces and communities,” the national peace and reintegration secretariat wrote this month in a review of its efforts.

Senior U.S. military officials and diplomats are concerned that the lack of reintegration programs will undermine efforts to achieve the Obama administration’s goal of an eventual political reconciliation with top rebel leaders that would end the nearly 10-year-long war.

“Bin Laden’s death — and the killing of scores of Taliban commanders over the past year — has opened a window for us,” said a former U.S. official who declined to speak for attribution because he is involved in Afghan reintegration. “But it’s emblematic of how unprepared we are for the endgame,” the official said, referring to the delays.

Reintegration policy

This past summer, after repeated prodding from U.S. officials, President Hamid Karzai approved a nationwide effort to win over low-level Taliban fighters. The program offers a general amnesty to insurgents deemed by Afghan security services not to have engaged in war crimes or other atrocities. Those who have participated in attacks on Afghan or coalition forces are typically forgiven.

The defecting insurgents are supposed to be placed in safe houses, to protect them from retribution, for 90 days while they undergo screening. During that time, they also are supposed to receive a monthly stipend ranging from $100 to $500, classes to equip them with job skills and basic literacy, and sessions with religious leaders aimed at weaning them from the Taliban’s radical Islamist agenda.

British Maj. Gen. Phillip Jones, the NATO military command’s director for reintegration, said there has been a “significant uptick” in interest among insurgents in laying down their weapons. He said that more than 40 groups of fighters, amounting to a few thousand men, are in negotiations with the Afghan government.

“A lot of these low-level groups are having a good, hard look at the fighting season ahead and are starting to vote with their feet,” he said.

About 1,700 Afghans have enrolled in the program, but most are in the country’s less-violent north and west, not in the strategically vital south and east. In Kandahar, which is in the south, Wesa said the necessary safe houses and job-training programs have not been set up, despite months of pleading with officials from the central government’s peace and reintegration secretariat.

“We do not have a strong infrastructure to host those people,” the governor said.

Although about 70 men have enrolled in the program in Kandahar, he said he is discouraging new participants until he is confident that the necessary components are in place. Otherwise, he said, other insurgents would conclude that the government is breaking its promises.

“They are looking at how we are treating them, what services we’re offering them, how they are being protected,” Wesa said. “If we don’t treat them well, that will leave a bad impression on other groups.”

Afghanistan has lacked much of the basic infrastructure to implement such a program. The central government only recently created a mechanism to transfer money from Kabul to the province-level peace councils that are responsible for running the program on a day-to-day basis, delaying the expenditure of the $131 million it has received from foreign donors — principally the United States and Japan — for reintegration efforts.

Political bickering also has hindered the process. Ethnic Pashtun leaders such as Karzai are generally supportive of the effort because they regard most low-level Taliban members as wayward cousins who can be lured back into the government fold. But many ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who live in the country’s north and battled the Taliban in the 1990s contend that the program amounts to a handout of money and jobs to people who have been engaged in violence instead of helping law-abiding Afghans who are struggling.

“Getting the Taliban to surrender is an important outcome, but we need to be careful with the incentives we provide them,” said Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik who served as foreign minister under the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban regime.

Funding complications

To avoid angering Afghans who did not side with the Taliban — and to keep those who are not real insurgents from signing up — the government does not plan to pay former fighters after their 90-day transition period. Instead, the peace secretariat plans to fund development projects in the fighters’ home villages that are intended to generate jobs and goodwill.

But the implementation of the projects has been complicated by the need to shift funds from the peace secretariat to the ministry responsible for rural development. The result has been further delays.

U.S. military officials had hoped USAID could provide an interim solution by tailoring some of its projects to help with the reintegration effort. The agency, however, has said it cannot help, citing congressional restrictions on Afghan reconstruction funds, one of which requires Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to certify that the money is not being used “to support any pardon, immunity from prosecution or amnesty . . . for any leader of an armed group responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes or other violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

Clinton has not provided a certification to Congress, and until she does, USAID’s attorneys have determined that it would be imprudent to assist in the reintegration effort. “At this point, AID can’t do anything on reintegration activities,” a senior U.S. official said.

But the senator responsible for the restriction, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said he did not intend for it to serve as a blanket prohibition on USAID’s involvement in reintegration efforts.

“If there are members of the Taliban who want to renounce violence and reintegrate into civilian life, we want USAID to encourage and support that,” he said. What the law restricts, he said, is only the use of U.S. funds to support pardons or immunity for Taliban leaders “who are responsible for heinous crimes.”

The Pentagon faces no such restrictions on $50 million it received from Congress for reintegration programs last year. But it, too, has had challenges in spending money. Thus far, it has used only $7 million, much of it to fund community meetings about reintegration at the province level. In the coming months, the military plans to accelerate spending by producing fliers and erecting billboards to promote the effort.

Vetting process criticized

To Afghan and international human rights advocates, the program’s biggest problem is not the government’s slow pace but its failure to screen participants thoroughly.

Assessments of former fighters conducted in three northern provinces by the Peace Training and Research Organization, an independent group based in Kabul, suggest that many of them were not combatants but imposters seeking stipends and positions in a new local policing program managed by U.S. Special Operations troops. The organization also determined that of about 50 self-professed defectors sent to learn de-mining skills in Kabul, only eight were actual Taliban fighters, said the group’s director, Mirwais Wardak.

“The rest of them were fake Taliban,” he said. “They’re criminals.”

In the northern province of Badghis, local officials permitted the reintegration of an insurgent commander who had issued a decree in August ordering the stoning of a young couple who had eloped. The couple — a 19-year-old woman named Siddiqa and a 25-year-old man named Khayyam — were subsequently killed in a field by rocks hurled by hundreds of men.

The commander, Maulavi Isfandar, was admitted into the reintegration process in February, said Abdul Ghani Saberi, the deputy governor of Badghis.

“It is the government’s responsibility to reintegrate everyone, including bad people and those who are doing the wrong thing,” he said.

Human rights advocates see it differently.

“He should be prosecuted, not reintegrated,” said Rachel Reid, the Afghanistan program director for the Open Society Foundations.

Afghan officials maintain that pursuing justice for past crimes should wait until the conflict is over. But the lack of meaningful vetting, Reid said, can create a “toxic mix.”

“There’s such an urgency for positive signs that they don’t tend to look too closely at the details,” Reid said. “If you’re going to do this in a way that doesn’t destabilize communities, you need to exclude those who have been the most abusive.”

Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.