Kabul (AP) – President Hamid Karzai is rolling out his program to lure Taliban and other insurgent fighters off the battlefield, addressing a three-day conference starting Wednesday aimed at building a national consensus on how to end the nearly nine-year war.
About 1,600 Afghans will convene in a giant tent at Kabul Polytechnic University to discuss how to reconcile with the fighters – even as the U.S. rushes in more troops to ramp up the war. Lawmakers, provincial council members, tribal and religious leaders and representatives of civil society will participate.
Notably absent from the "peace jirga" – it means "large assembly" in Pashto – will be official representatives of the Taliban, although some of the delegates may be insurgent sympathizers.
The Taliban have dismissed the jirga as a "phony reconciliation process" and insist they will not negotiate until all foreign troops leave the country. Security has been stepped up in Kabul in case the Taliban launches attacks in the capital to disrupt the conference.
Still, Karzai is hoping the jirga will bolster him politically by endorsing his strategy of offering incentives to individual Taliban fighters and reaching out to the insurgent leadership, despite skepticism in Washington that the time is right for an overture to militant leaders.
Some members of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities fear Karzai may be too eager to sell out their interests in hopes of cutting a deal with the Taliban, who, like him, are Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.
About 20 percent of the delegates will be women, a sector that suffered under Taliban rule and would have much to lose in a settlement that gives the insurgents a prominent political role in Afghan society.
"I have to tell you that this program with Karzai sounds like kind of a deal with the Taliban," said Fauzia Khofi, an ethnic Tajik lawmaker who survived an assassination attempt last March in her northern province of Badakhshan.
"Karzai perhaps wants the reintegration money just to help the Pashtuns in the south," she said. "For the peace process, they need to discuss with the other factions who fought against the Taliban," including ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Khofi will attend the jirga.
Even among southern Pashtuns, where skepticism of the government and support for the militants run deep, there are doubts whether significant numbers of Taliban fighters will accept the deal, preferring instead to hold out until foreign troops are gone. President Obama has pledged to begin pulling out U.S. troops in July 2011.
Leaders of one Taliban-allied group, Hizb-i-Islami, led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have already sent a delegation to meet with Karzai last March and talked with lawmakers and other Afghans this month.
Nevertheless, the conference will provide an opportunity for representatives of Afghanistan's complex power structure to determine how to design a peace policy toward the Taliban without giving away the gains in human rights and rule of law achieved since the collapse of Taliban rule in the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.
"We know that there are concerns and reservations among various ethnic groups and other communities in Afghanistan about the reconciliation program," said NATO's top civilian official in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill. "They want to ensure that all of the gains – the human rights achievements, both practically and in the constitution itself – are cemented and not put at risk by any process of reconciliation."
Progress on a political resolution is key to any U.S. exit strategy. Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring nations have a stake in any design of a post-conflict Afghanistan. Without a reconciliation strategy, NATO and its Afghan allies have few options other than to try for a decisive victory – requiring a bigger investment in lives, treasure and time than the international coalition is prepared to make.
The conference was set for early May but was delayed – first until after Karzai's visit to Washington and then for a few days to allow delegates from remote areas more time to reach the capital.
"I think it's an appropriate effort on their part to help figure out the way ahead for the nation because the way ahead cannot be war," said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander. "The way ahead has to be a resolution to it. So thinking about it during the conflict, I think is very, very responsible."
The centerpiece of the jirga is the government's draft reintegration program that would offer low and midlevel insurgents jobs, literacy and vocational training plus development aid for their villages if they give up the fight.
The Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program would be supported by a $160 million trust fund financed by the U.S., Japan, Britain and others.
To take advantage of the program, insurgents must renounce violence, respect the Afghan constitution and sever ties with al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks, according to the draft obtained by The Associated Press.
Those who sign on may either return home at once or spend up to 90 days in a secured demobilization center. They will be given biometrics identification cards to make sure they reintegrate only once. Some will be granted amnesty, according to the draft. The plan also calls for setting up centers to "mollify radicalized ideological beliefs" held by insurgents.
Because private sector jobs are scarce, the plan calls for setting up an Engineering and Construction Corps and an Agriculture Conservation Corps to work on the national road system and public infrastructure, reforestation, water and irrigation projects.
Reaching out to top Taliban leaders would be done through political channels, perhaps by removing them from the U.N. sanctions list or granting a few of them exile in another country, according to the draft.
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, Karzai's point man on reconciliation, believes offering incentives to Taliban foot soldiers alone cannot end the insurgency because defectors are replaceable.
The Obama administration supports overtures to rank-and-file insurgents but has been skeptical of a major political initiative, believing that should wait until accelerated military operations have weakened the Taliban on the battlefield. U.S. officials believe the Taliban leadership feels it has little reason to negotiate because it believes it is winning the war.
President Hamid Karzai is rolling out his program to lure Taliban and other insurgent fighters off the battlefield, addressing a three-day conference starting Wednesday aimed at building a national consensus on how to end the nearly nine-year war.