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Would Taliban fighters switch sides?

By Andrew North
BBC News, Kabul

US troops in Helmand province on 2 October 2009
Rising casualties have sparked debate about how the war is being fought

The news from Afghanistan looks unremittingly bleak for the West these days.

Casualties among foreign and Afghan troops are again rising, with the rancour over the fraud-marred presidential elections still in the air.

Taliban statements are ever more gleeful - hardly surprising when by some assessments they now have their own shadow governors in 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

The "W" word is being mentioned more and more - withdrawal.

But one British soldier still sounds optimistic.

"You will see some things in 2010 which will make it quite clear this is going the right way," Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb told the BBC.

'Switch sides'

A former head of Britain's special forces, Gen Lamb has been asked by the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, to organise a renewed drive to persuade Taliban fighters to switch sides.

Gen Lamb oversaw a similar initiative in Iraq two years ago, which saw the US military paying tens of thousands of former insurgents to join local militias to fight their former al-Qaeda allies.

Gen Graeme Lamb (pic: Army)
My sense is we are at an opportunity
Gen Graeme Lamb

The programme was instrumental in reducing the violence in Iraq.

Some hope an Afghan version could have a silver bullet effect here.

But ideas like this have been tried as far back as 2005, with little result.

In some cases they have been a disaster.

Lower-level Taliban commanders have surrendered, but then been slaughtered because they were not given sufficient protection.

President Hamid Karzai once even offered an amnesty to the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, in return for stopping fighting.

In his first news conference after his disputed re-election, Mr Karzai yet again extended an olive branch to the Taliban, calling them his "brothers" and urging them "to embrace their land".

The Taliban quickly dismissed his latest offer, ridiculing Mr Karzai as a "puppet".

And questions over the legitimacy and credibility of his government after the troubled elections are likely to be another obstacle to any reconciliation process.

So what is different this time?

'Upset brothers'

"There's a timing about this sort of stuff," says Gen Lamb. "Sometimes [it is] missed and sometimes seized. My sense is we are at an opportunity."

He is vague on the details of what he calls his "reintegration" plan, saying it is still being worked out.

But millions of dollars are being lined up to provide jobs and support to communities in Taliban areas.

Construction work in Kabul on 22 October 2009
Money must go to communities, not to individuals, Gen Lamb says

It is already causing disquiet among some Afghan politicians though - unhappy at any suggestion of Taliban fighters being, as they see it, rewarded.

There was plenty of opposition to the idea in Iraq as well.

Yet significantly Gen Lamb says he will not copy that model and directly pay former insurgents.

Money will not "go to individuals because that would be money being paid for bad behaviour", he says.

"These may be 'upset brothers'," he says. "But they have been killing a lot of my good friends. This is about taking them away from the violent road, therefore it is about putting money into their communities."

How, in practice, it will be possible to prevent US dollars ending up in the hands of Taliban figures is far from clear.

This may just be useful fiction to maintain Afghan political support.

Gen Lamb says one lesson from Iraq is the need to pursue any reconciliation initiative in tandem with the government.

In Baghdad, he and the Americans went ahead and did it alone.

And there are still tensions in Iraq over providing more permanent jobs for members of the ad hoc militias they created.

But from the Nato headquarters in Kabul, Gen Lamb says he is working closely with the Afghan government on every aspect of his plan.

'Troops needed'

He is also keeping a wary eye on the debate in Washington as US President Barack Obama decides whether to send up to 40,000 extra US soldiers to Afghanistan.

Historically, most reconciliation initiatives, from Northern Ireland to Iraq, have depended on one side gaining the upper hand militarily.

As well as increasing the pressure on al-Qaeda, the surge of US forces in Iraq helped push wavering insurgents off the fence.

The same applies in Afghanistan. "You definitely need more troops. No doubt about it," says Gen Lamb, although he won't be drawn on how many.

The aim, he says, is to get to a tipping point. "It's not how it finishes, it's the point in time when you see the shift. Exactly the same thing happened in Iraq and you will see that happen here."

Yet while military commanders admit Iraq is different, hopes of pulling off a similar transformation in Afghanistan could still be wishful thinking.

It was only possible to create these pro-US militias because of a Sunni tribal uprising against al-Qaeda in their stronghold in western Iraq.

The revolt began entirely independently of the Americans, and initially without their support.

So far, there is no sign of any similar rebellion in the Taliban heartlands of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Their grip is still too strong.

And with public support in the US and Britain - the two main troop contributors - collapsing, the Taliban have time on their side.

So what will the signs be, the BBC asked Gen Lamb, that "this is going the right way"?

"Come back and talk to me in six months' time," he says.



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