Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Karzai calls a meeting, but will the Taliban talk?

Taliban fighters display their weapons
The Taliban may not agree to talks while foreign troops are still in Afghanistan

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kabul

Talking with the Taliban has emerged as the big issue at the London Conference.

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has called for a jirga - a tribal meeting - with the Taliban, but he hasn't stated where, when or what would be discussed.

But anyway it is a proposal likely to be dismissed by the Taliban leadership, who have demanded that foreign troops leave Afghanistan before any talks can be held.

If Western troops, however, were simply to pull out, the Afghan government would probably collapse, and many Afghans believe the country would then descend into civil war.

Perhaps, more interestingly, President Karzai has put forward what appears a simple idea - weaken the insurgency by luring away low and mid-level Taliban fighters to the side of the government.

This, it is argued, could be done by offering jobs, which will be funded by the West, and a general amnesty for the insurgents if they agree to lay down their arms and accept the government.

But it will be difficult, if not impossible, to pull off.

'Starved' of intelligence

Part of the problem is that international forces (and the Afghan government) are struggling to understand who they are fighting and what is actually fuelling the insurgency here.

In a scathing assessment, the top US intelligence officer in the country, Gen Michael T Flynn, wrote in a recent report that the military was "starved" of intelligence on the insurgency.

And that raises the question: if you do not fully understand who you are fighting, can you hope to win them over?

Experts agree the Taliban-led insurgency is an extremely complex movement.

The Taliban which ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s onwards was ousted from power in 2001 by a US-led invasion.

The movement sheltered Osama Bin Laden, who is believed by the US to have been behind the devastating attacks on its soil in the same year.

Its leaders fled and are thought to be hiding in the Afghan-Pakistani border areas.

A US Marine and sniffer dog
More foreign troops have been sent to the country

But in recent years, the Taliban has led a strengthening insurgency, which wants to topple the Western-backed Afghan government.

Experts, however, say that many of the estimated 20-30,000 fighters are not motivated by ideological or religious reasons.

Some are motivated by financial necessity and are known as the "ten-dollar Taliban".

These fighters plant a roadside bomb or protect a weapons cache mainly for money.

And then there are the disaffected tribes, some of whom have joined the Taliban, simply because they do not trust the government, seeing it as corrupt, ineffective, and partial to other tribes.

It will be men from these ranks that the government will try to woo.

But it is not clear how any process of reintegration would actually work.

To be successful, it would mean cutting deals, often at a local level, which will require a great deal of knowledge and patience.

And women's groups will be worried about the idea of talking to any members of the Taliban-led insurgency.

There is a growing realisation in Western capitals and Kabul that this conflict will only come to an end - or see a reduction in violence - if some sort of political agreement is reached with the Taliban.

But for talks or reintegration to happen at any level, the two sides need to be willing to speak to each other.

And with President Karzai and the West making the right noises, some low and mid-level insurgents may decide to switch sides.

But the Taliban leadership has never given the appearance of talking to Karzai's government.

Rightly or wrongly, the movement's leaders believe that years down the line, they may win this conflict.

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