January 26, 2010 5:54 pm

Kabul seeks to reintegrate Taliban

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Afghanistan’s finance minister has raised the prospect of involving the Taliban across all levels of government, at both a district and central government level, as part of a broader plan for their reintegration and brokering peace. “Negotiations could begin as early as tomorrow if we have international backing,” he said.

Ahead of tomorrow’s opening of the international conference on Afghanistan in London that will address plans for an exit strategy for western forces, Omar Zakhilwal told the Financial Times he believed the Taliban were ready to negotiate. “Even at this moment they do sense that it will be impossible for them to return to power.”

In a stark reminder of the political reality in Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mojahed, rejected claims that talks were under way. “There is no negotiation going on about reintegration plan or forming a political settlement . . .I don’t think there will be any chance of negotiations until the foreign infidel troops leave our country.”

But the finance minister’s comments did reflect the marked change of tack by commanders of western forces. This week Gen Stanley McChrystal, the Nato commander in Afghanistan outlined how he envisaged the US-led military surge this year would lay the foundations for a negotiated peace with the Taliban, and said he would urge his allies to renew their commitment to this strategy at the conference.

Mr Zakhilwal said there were “really quite large numbers of people [Taliban] who have been coming to the government. With the right sort of assurances, credible assurances, you can immediately see some defections”. He said Pakistan, which was instrumental in the creation of the Taliban in the 1990s, would have to play an important role in bringing this about.

In recent months, western forces have been on the back foot in the campaign against the Taliban. In the latest attack, a suicide car bomber blew himself up near a US military base in Kabul on Tuesday, wounding six civilians, an Afghan security official said.

But Mr Zakhilwal remains optimistic, and insists that, while it will be difficult to work with the Taliban, “doing nothing on that front is not an option”.

He is seeking backing at the conference for a reintegration plan that would cost between an estimated $200m (€142m, £124m) and $1bn to enforce. It would involve negotiating with the Taliban at different levels in a two-pronged approach, starting with the “lower ranks” who are fighting against international forces. “Not all of them are idolising the Taliban. Quite a large group of them have sided with the Taliban because they were forced to,” he said.

Mr Zakhilwal suggested giving them incentives to switch sides by offering jobs, land and protection.

The “second prong”, the core of the Taliban’s leadership, could, he proposed, be involved at the level of a government minister or district councillor.

Mr Zakhilwal said the government had been approached several times by the Taliban since 2003 to form a settlement but it did not have the support of the west.

“The cost of peace is many times lower than the cost of war. That is the argument we will present at the London conference.”

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