Can Karzai Make Peace With the Taliban?

By Bruce Loudon

Modern history is replete with schemes to capture the hearts and minds of those fighting for the insurgent cause - some successful, some not - and turn back the tide of rebellion.

So how, after last week's onslaught on central Kabul by the Taliban, should we view the imminent announcement by President Hamid Karzai of a major new initiative to "reconcile" with elements of the Taliban and "reintegrate" them into Afghan society?

The portents are not promising. Karzai supporters insist otherwise, but it's hard to conclude other than that the unprecedented assault on the central-city symbols of power in Kabul, bringing the Taliban to the gates of the presidential palace, was anything but a telling manifestation of the militants' potency and an indication that they are far from anything even vaguely suggesting defeat.

But when a conference on Afghanistan convenes in London next week, bringing together representatives from more than 60 countries, most of which are increasingly despairing about the prospects, the main feature of Karzai's keynote address will be a bold initiative to capture Taliban hearts and minds - to achieve reconciliation and reintegrate the militants into Afghan society.

It is, by all accounts, an ambitious plan - one founded in the belief of those, such as the Afghanistan expert Michael Semple, that the militant movement "contains legions of men who have nothing to do with Islamic zealotry. For many, insurgency is a way of life. And even if many fighters are fundamentally non-ideological, membership of an insurgent network - in which elders and peers tell them that opposing foreign forces is virtuous - offers a kind of respectability," as he has argued.

Karzai's top aide drafting the "outreach" plan, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, speaks of it being "one of the most important things we are doing" and while his boss is trying to keep details secret until he speaks in London, enough is known to suggest that, at long last, a serious attempt is going to be made to entice Taliban supporters back from the battlefront.

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There is talk of financial inducements similar to those that were a key feature of similar "hearts and minds" efforts aimed at getting Sunni militants onside in Iraq; of jobs and education for young Talibs and their supporters, of pensions for veterans who have been fighting for the past 30 years, of land being given to those who return to the government fold, and, importantly, of plans for fortified villages to ensure that those who agree to defect will not be targeted for retribution by the militants.

There is talk even of plans to offer a comfortable exile, probably in Saudi Arabia, for top Taliban commanders surrounding the movement's "emir", Mullah Omar.

It is not the first such plan. Karzai, for years, has been insisting that the welcome mat is out for Talibs willing to renounce violence. But there have been few takers.

Now, however, things are going to be different, Karzai says. The plan to achieve reconciliation and reintegration is, his officials say, as important as the military offensive that will accompany the Obama surge in troop numbers. And in London, Karzai will be seeking both support from his allies, and money to fund the reconciliation initiative. Already, Japan has indicated it may be prepared to stump up as much as $500 million.

But, after the assault on Kabul, will the new plan for reconciliation work? Can Taliban fighters be bought off? Or in their frenzied devotion to Islam, are they "irrecuperable"? Those who have been drafting the plan say that while Taliban big fish are targeted in the plan, its main focus is on the so-called "little Ts" or "reconcilables" - mainly lower- and middle-ranking Talibs who are seen as potentially liable to inducement.

The problem for Karzai's plan now, however, is that the Taliban is doing better than ever. The assault on Kabul was an indication of that. There is no hint of the military tide turning against it in a way that might make its fighters consider the blandishments on offer. It's not just in Kabul where they are doing well: in provinces across the country, the Taliban holds sway. And therein, perhaps, lies the heart of the difficulty, for as abominable as the Taliban is in Western eyes, the reality is that, incredibly, it is increasingly viewed by many Afghans as a liberation movement bravely fighting hated foreign invaders.

There is another major element in the equation, too: the widespread dismay over Karzai's corrupt administration. Significantly, a UN public opinion survey published this week shows that almost 60 per cent of Afghans view "public dishonesty" as a significantly bigger concern than security.

So if Karzai's reconciliation plan does not work, what is the alternative? It's probably worth a shot. But it would be wrong to expect too much, for the reality is that after almost a decade of waging a battle against the most massive odds, there is no sign of Mullah Omar and his cohorts being defeated, much less of them abandoning their battle.

Bruce Loudon was The Australian's South Asia correspondent.

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