Taliban reconciliation will be focus of London conference
RAF MILDENHALL, England — Buying off insurgents and setting a tentative timetable for handing over security to Afghan forces will be the focal points of a conference on Afghanistan to be held Thursday in London.
Afghan leaders and 60 foreign ministers will discuss the Afghan government’s strategy to improve security and governance, and how the international community can support those efforts.
At the heart of the strategy is an Afghan-proposed reintegration program aimed at bringing low-level Taliban fighters back into normal society, according to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the conference organizer.
Under the plan, which is backed by U.S. and British leaders, the Afghan government would offer jobs, vocational training and other financial incentives to Taliban soldiers willing to switch sides, according to The Associated Press. The goal is to reach out to 20,000 to 35,000 insurgents, but skeptics question whether large numbers would desert at a time when many insurgents may believe they are winning and could outlast Western forces.
President Barack Obama has said he plans to start withdrawing some U.S. troops by July 2011.
“The insurgency is not a monolith. It comprises many different groups which have, to a greater or lesser extent, co-opted foreign fighters, local tribes, those who are involved in the drug trade and mercenary fighters paid as little as $10 a day,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the AP. “We know that the different groups feed off and support each other. But with the right political strategy and the right balance of military muscle and political outreach, we can exploit those divisions.”
The conference comes as casualties are up and the coalition is preparing to send 37,000 more troops into the war zone in an effort to reverse recent gains made by the Taliban.
The reconciliation plan — a strategy is reminiscent of the “Sons of Iraq” program that paid civilians to protect neighborhoods — would be underwritten by a “Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund” over the next few years for those who cut ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Britain and Japan have agreed to head the international fund, expected to total up to $500 million over the next five years, The Washington Post reported.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said this reconciliation effort will succeed even where previous initiatives have failed because of its greater support, according to the AP.
It could come down to whether an insurgent is fighting for Islamist ideology or for a paycheck, according to Army Col. Bjarne Iverson, a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The ‘reconcilables’ in Afghanistan are sometimes called the economic Taliban, who are strictly in it for the paycheck, money to feed their families,” he said in an October interview with Stars and Stripes. “Can they be siphoned off if there’s a good reason to be siphoned off? They probably can.”
Ideologues, on the other hand, are probably not open to switching sides, Iverson said.
U.K. Ambassador to Afghanistan Mark Sedwill — named NATO’s new civilian representative in Afghanistan on Tuesday — said the conference also will seek to plan for the handover of provincial-level security to Afghan forces in some areas.
“What we will see at the conference is a set of conditions and an indicative timeline for provinces and districts to be transferred,” Sedwill said in a transcript posted on the FCO’s Web site last week. Sedwill did not name any provinces in particular.
While official details of the security handover have not been made public, the Financial Times reported Saturday that Afghan security forces could assume primary responsibility for a number of the country’s 34 provinces by early 2011. While political and military leaders cite Afghan police and army competence as keys to an eventual withdrawal of NATO forces, questions remain about the quality, number and loyalties of indigenous forces.
This week’s conference is expected to lay the groundwork for another summit in Kabul this spring.