KABUL, Afghanistan - The big story here, underreported so far, is the emergence of coordinated American and Afghan efforts to bring Taliban leaders and fighters in from the cold.
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai is inaugurated again next week, he will call for peace and reconciliation with Afghan insurgents. Popular pressure for such efforts is strong, as I have heard in many conversations with Afghan elders and local officials.
Past efforts at reconciliation have been a dismal failure. But a broad consensus has emerged that the Afghan insurgency can't be quelled by military means alone. So U.S. and Afghan officials are looking to develop more effective programs to reintegrate low- and mid-level Taliban into society. And U.S. officials are now open to efforts by the Karzai government to explore whether top Taliban leaders may be ready to give up fighting and live by constitutional rules.
"We haven't changed the policy," one U.S. official told me, "but we have changed the emphasis in an important way. Now we are actively encouraging an Afghan-led process for reintegration of Taliban, or any insurgents willing to lay down their arms" and respect the Afghan constitution.
When it comes to contacts between Afghan officials and top Taliban leaders, this official made clear that the most pressing American concern was whether such leaders are willing to break convincingly with al-Qaeda.
"We believe our strategic problem with the Taliban begins and ends with their support for al-Qaeda and their aggression against the United States and our allies," he said. "If the Taliban made clear that they have broken with al-Qaeda and that their own objectives were nonviolent and political - however abhorrent to us - we wouldn't be keeping 68,000-plus troops here. We'd certainly continue to support Afghans who are leading the way for human rights and democratic reforms, but we'd do so mainly through traditional means of diplomacy and development assistance."
So what does this shift in emphasis mean on the ground?
Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb, a former British special forces commander, has been heading the coalition's recent efforts to get Taliban to switch sides, a role he played with Sunni insurgents in Iraq. The Afghan political landscape is far more complex than Iraq's, but some Taliban are already laying down arms on their own, encouraged by local elders, as I witnessed in Wardak province.
The Americans want the Afghan government to take the lead in dealing with lower-level Taliban and, most definitely, in contacting Taliban leaders. Karzai's adviser on reintegration, Mohammed Masoom Stanikzai, told me that by December he hopes to put together a comprehensive plan that would offer protection and economic aid to Taliban who switch sides.
Previous Afghan plans for turning the Taliban failed because they lacked both a coherent strategy and capable leadership, and because officials did not consult with provincial leaders. Much will depend on whether those deficits are remedied. Less corruption would also help.
As for starting talks with the big Taliban, that will be much more dicey. With rare exceptions, U.S. diplomats in Kabul don't even meet with former officials from the 1990s Taliban government who switched sides years ago and live in Kabul. One part-time adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Barnett Rubin, pursues the issue of reconciliation while wearing his other hat, as an Afghanistan expert at New York University.
I sensed no urgency on the American side to see dialogue with the big Taliban in the near term. Top U.S. military commanders believe senior Taliban commanders aren't likely to compromise until the momentum shifts on the ground.
Big Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have rejected previous Karzai overtures. Stanikzai stresses that the timing of any new peace overture is crucial. Calling for negotiations too soon - before Afghanistan is more stable - would convey weakness.
The key to future peace talks may be sequencing - moving first on reconciliation with smaller fry, which would increase pressure on the top. "If we have an impact on reintegration from below, that will affect the big-T Taliban," Stanikzai said. "If you combine bottom-up and top-down, you can have a meaningful result." This thinking is echoed by U.S. counterinsurgency experts.
So watch the development of Karzai's plan for peace and reconciliation, and whom he appoints to implement it. Bottom-up, top-down may be a key to when U.S. troops come home.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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