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You Can't Help if You Aren't There
Persuading fighters to think of laying down their arms might be the easiest part of a new approach. They also need to believe they will be safe if they do so. Many Taliban foot soldiers joined the movement simply because they ended up on the wrong side of a local power equation. As with Jameel in Wardak province, affiliation with the Taliban offered them protection. So if they are going to disarm, they need to be confident that the side they are joining will stay and win otherwise, desertion could be a death sentence.
Trouble is, that means making the sort of guarantee that the U.S. and its allies shy away from. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that the U.S. is "not interested in staying [in Afghanistan]" and has "no long-term stake there," she probably if inadvertently caused fence sitters to reconsider their options. Indeed, Masoom Stanekzai, Karzai's point man on the reintegration policy, says that for it to work, a U.S. commitment of more troops is important. "The stronger presence of security forces in an area means that more Taliban commanders are under pressure," says Stanekzai. "They will ask themselves, 'Continue and be killed, or join the peace process?'"
So far, the new policy has focused on low-level Taliban fighters. But there have been moves to engage the insurgency's leaders too. In a sign of mounting frustration with Karzai's government, Obama recently requested an analysis of Afghanistan's provinces to determine which of them had leaders with whom the U.S. could work directly. The request apparently did not exclude Taliban commanders, a move that has met with approval among Afghans. "There are many capable people in the Taliban ... [who] can be an asset [to the government] if they agree to lay down their arms," says Haleem Fidayee, governor of Wardak province. To many, the Taliban are no worse than the warlords who preceded them in power. Several such warlords are now serving in Karzai's Cabinet. If they can be brought into the tent, the reasoning goes, why can't the Taliban leadership? "If you want to get important results, you have to talk to important people," says Talatbek Masadykov, director of political affairs at the U.N.
But do those important people want a conversation? In recent months, Mullah Omar, the one-eyed veteran Taliban leader, seems to have distanced himself from al-Qaeda. In a September statement, Omar assured foreign nations that Afghanistan would never again be used as a launching ground for international terrorism, as it was before 9/11. "We assure all countries," he said, "that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as a responsible force, will not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others." Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network and author of a recent book on the war, is convinced that the Taliban is trying to send a message. "They are presenting themselves as a parallel government. Even before 9/11 they wanted to play ball. We didn't take them seriously then, but we should start doing that now."
Others might dispute that analysis. In 2001, the Taliban leadership was fractured between moderates, who sought international engagement, and conservatives, influenced by al-Qaeda, who preferred continued isolation. But assuming that at least some Taliban leaders want to reach out to the West, what would a conversation with them be about? "Everyone says we have to talk to the Taliban," says Hekmat Karzai, director of the Kabul-based Center for Conflict and Peace Studies. "But when you do, what the hell are you going to say?" It's a good question. The first thing the Taliban would want is a cease-fire, says Antonio Giustozzi, author of Decoding the New Taliban. "They crave the kind of legitimacy that such a cease-fire would bring. They want to be counted as a legitimate force with legitimate grievances." But a cease-fire would mean that Taliban senior leaders would be removed from the U.N. sanctions list as well as the Pentagon's Joint Integrated Prioritized Target List, which catalogs authorized targets for U.S. forces. Doing so shouldn't be that difficult. It could even be used as a bargaining tool to lure some of the Taliban to the table.