Britain and the US are backing a new strategy to buy off "soft" supporters of the Taliban in a radical attempt to end nine years of war in Afghanistan. The plan, to be approved at a 60-nation conference in London today, comes amid unexpected signs of growing political support for the equally high-risk idea of talks leading to a political settlement with the Taliban leadership.
In a telling move, on Tuesday night the UN Security Council bowed to pressure from the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, to lift sanctions imposed on former officials who served in the Taliban government driven from power by the US-led invasion of 2001.
The multimillion-pound "peace and reintegration" fund would seek to lure low ranking Taliban fighters, who join out of poverty rather than ideology, by giving them jobs, schooling or land for farming. An effective amnesty for these men, now believed to make up 75 per cent of the insurgency's ranks, means that even those who took part in attacks involving the deaths of British or US soldiers would be rehabilitated.
The UN sanctions had been imposed under a resolution aimed at punishing the Taliban for their support of Osama bin Laden's network. More than 100 Taliban names including that of Mullah Omar, the hardline Taliban spiritual leader, remain on the list. But the move to rehabilitate five former senior Taliban officials, greeted with deep suspicion by human rights groups, could be a pathway to direct negotiations with senior figures in the movement. While they remain on the UN blacklist, they cannot appear in public or attend talks. The decision was warmly welcomed yesterday by Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan, who said it was "a long overdue step".
President Karzai, who has said he would be prepared to give Mullah Omar "safe passage" if he agreed to lay down his arms, is using the London conference to push for more names to be taken off the list.
General Stanley McChrystal, the US Nato commander, said earlier this week that he could envisage some former Taliban members being brought into the Kabul government. And Kai Eide, the UN chief in Kabul, called for the lifting of sanctions as a prelude to the opening of direct negotiations. "If you want relevant results then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority. I think the time has come to do it," he said in an interview this week.
Offering the Taliban leadership an olive branch with a view to a negotiated peace settlement is the "second prong" of a strategy now favoured by the Karzai government. But it is politically more sensitive for the West than reaching out to low-ranking fighters, because of what any "grand bargain" might entail. In 2007 two Western diplomats were expelled from Afghanistan for engaging in contacts with the extremists.
There are intense concerns among human rights groups that the movement's leaders could try to water down the Afghan constitution before agreeing to end the fighting.
Some US officials are worried that any talk of engagement will be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Another risk is they could signal a willingness to talk as a diversion. But Mr Holbrooke and Joe Biden, the US Vice-President, are said to be privately interested in exploring the possibilities.
In London yesterday Mr Holbrooke played down any early movement towards reconciliation with the "core" Taliban but said the question of "whether there is some basis between them and the [Kabul] government for common ground" was "very interesting". Asked what should be done by Kabul on reconciliation with the Taliban leadership, he said: "I will leave that to President Karzai," but added that removing the five Taliban officials, including the former foreign minister Mullah Mutawakil, from the UN sanctions watch list, was a "noteworthy step" in the process.
He stressed that the US had clear "red lines" which could not be crossed. There would have to be a complete repudiation of ties to al-Qa'ida, a commitment to laying down arms and to participating in a peaceful political approach. Certain aspects of Taliban behaviour "including the unacceptable nature of their treatment of women" were also a major concern.
Asked about the acceptability of granting an amnesty to rank and file fighters who had so recently taken part in attacks on British or American soldiers Mr Holbrooke said: "You won't hear the word amnesty from Afghan or American officials; it is an old-fashioned word that doesn't quite cover the situation. What you are trying to do is to prevent future deaths. Everybody has acknowledged that you can't win the war by trying to kill very single person fighting for the Taliban. That is just demonstrably not possible and senior British commanders have acknowledged it.
"We are trying to offer the opportunity for shooters to come off the battlefield so they don't kill more troops. My heart goes out to the families of those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere. But it is not a disservice to them to try to take people who have killed off the battlefield, give them jobs and land and opportunites to reintegrate."
British officials insist that the plan does not involve "bribing the Taliban with cash handouts" or Britain talking directly to them. The Afghan government will take the lead in bringing the Taliban back into the fold, they say, persuading them to renounce violence. British officials see the initiative more as a "divide and rule" strategy which will isolate or split the Taliban leadership.
Mark Sedwill, the British ambassador to Afghanistan who has just been appointed to head the civilian wing of the Nato mission there, cautioned earlier this week that luring youthful fighters away from the insurgency should be the focus before any talk of political negotiations with the "core" Taliban. "We need to proceed very carefully, with the Afghans deciding." Noting however, that ex-warlords were already in senior positions in Afghanistan, he said: "We can't be hypocrites, we need to look at it in a similar way to Northern Ireland. So some pretty unsavoury characters have to be brought into the system. If you don't do that you risk the system breaking apart."
He said "terrible" human rights abuses had been committed. "But I believe, I'm afraid, that it is one of the tough choices we have to make. Their future conduct of course is different."
The conference at Lancaster House, to be opened by Gordon Brown, will be attended by 60 foreign ministers including Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State. It will discuss plans for a gradual handover of some of Afghanistan's 34 provinces within the next 18 months so that US, British and other foreign troops can take a "subordinate role".
It will discuss plans to step up the training of the Afghan police and army but will not set a timetable for a withdrawal of allied forces, British sources said last night.
In from the cold Taliban's last foreign minister
The Taliban's last foreign minister before the US-led invasion in 2001, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, was seen as the figure best able to put a gloss on the regime's rights abuses. Even in 2007, he said the country had a "love in our hearts" for foreign militants who flocked there. But he was said to have tried to warn the US before 9/11. Some say he then defected, and he ended up at Bagram air base for 18 months, disowned by the Taliban.
Since then he has downplayed the crimes of the regime. "We hoped our laws would bring freedom to everyone in every part of life," he said in 2007.
Mutawakil was joined in the change in status by four other former officials. Abdul Hakim Monib, a frontier affairs minister, also renounced the Taliban and became a provincial governor, only to step down after corruption complaints. Shams-ul Safa Aminzai was a press officer. Mohammad Musa, a planning minister, later won election as an MP. Faizl Mohammed Faizan was the deputy commerce minister.
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