Taliban 'buy out' fund to cost hundreds of millions

An international fund will be established in bid to buy off Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.

LONDON // An international fund amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars will be established this week in a bid to buy off Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. An outline for the strategy, which will be principally funded by the US, Japan and Britain, was reported to have been drafted at a meeting in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago of top-level diplomats from 20 countries.

The announcement of the establishment of the Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund, which will seek to "split the Taliban" by luring into mainstream politics any leaders not connected to, or ready to break their links with, al Qa'eda is due to be announced at the end of Thursday's summit on Afghanistan in London. Some will see the plan as the most public acknowledgement yet that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

But, assuming the scheme is approved on Thursday, it will represent the most comprehensive political attempt to draw the sting out of the insurgency since the fall of the regime in 2001. According to The Times yesterday, the draft communiqué to be issued at the end of the conference also foresees Afghan troops "taking the lead and conducting the majority of operations in the insecure areas of Afghanistan within three years and taking responsibility for physical security within five years".

Diplomatic sources in London yesterday stressed that this did not mean that a timetable was being drawn up for the withdrawal of the Nato-led force in Afghanistan, currently 110,000 strong. However, it will be the proposal for the "bribes" fund that will cause most controversy. Until now, many in the West had regarded opening a dialogue with the Taliban as appeasement. The new scheme's aim will be to offer Taliban fighters jobs and training programmes while their leaders will be offered roles in the governance of the country in talks with the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, told reporters yesterday: "Over the long-term, we can split the Taliban. I believe there are many people who will be brought over, but they have to renounce violence, and be part of the democratic process." A senior diplomat in London added: "The strategy of trying to lure fighters away from the Taliban has been going on for some time. This new proposal is of a whole different dimension: it will be structured, very well financed and aimed at bringing local warlords into the mainstream.

"It's a carrot-and-stick approach. On the ground, there will be up to 40,000 more troops this year making things uncomfortable for the Taliban. The carrot is the money and a place within the power structure of Afghanistan." In recent months, there have been an increasing number of reports of US involvement in negotiations with representatives of Mullah Mohammad Omar and other Taliban commanders, offering cash and jobs in a bid to get them to lay down their arms.

French, Italian and US troops have also been reported to have made cash payments on the ground, either to persuade Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons or simply to give safe passage to supply columns passing through their territories. Mr Karzai told the BBC last week that the United States and Britain had previously been opposed to his scheme to offer the Taliban money and jobs, but that they now had been won over to the idea.

He denied the scheme was a bribe. "If we call it bribery, then we are all taking bribes overseas because employment is something we are looking in all countries all over the world. It's what young people seek, just like in America," he said. The president also pointed out that, currently, the Taliban could afford to pay its volunteers more than his government could afford to pay its own soldiers. Political leaders have been quietly attempting to soften up public opinion over bringing the Taliban in from the cold. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, recently described the Taliban as part of the "political fabric" of Afghanistan.

David Miliband, the UK foreign secretary, also said recently: "When people say to me: 'Should the Afghan government be talking to the Taliban?', I have a simple answer: yes, they should." Kai Eide, the chief United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, has called for some Taliban leaders to be removed from a UN list of terrorists as a prelude to talks, while even Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of the foreign force in Afghanistan, said yesterday that he believed the Taliban had a role to play in government.

"I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past," he told the Financial Times. "As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there's been enough fighting." However, military commanders are also making it plain that the carrot-and-stick approach will also involve plenty of stick. Major Gen Nick Carter, the commander of 45,000 Nato troops in Helmand province, said yesterday that a major offensive would be launched to "assert the control" of the Afghan government in areas currently controlled by the Taliban. "Helmand is very much a work in progress, with parts simply ungoverned. If they're governed at all, it's by parallel governments, provided often by the Taliban.

"If we're going to win the argument on behalf of the Afghan government, then we need to assert the government's control over those areas which are at the moment ungoverned." Not everyone is happy with the idea of trying to buy off Taliban fighters. Adam Holloway, a British Conservative MP and member of the defence select committee in the House of Commons, described the plan as "ridiculous". "That's buying them off, that's not reconciliation," he said. "To think you are going to reconcile people to a corrupt, remote and unwanted government in Pashtun areas is ridiculous.

"It might work temporarily. There is no perfect solution, but if you think it is just about money, it is not going to work. It just symbolises they haven't got it right." Clare Lockhart, chief executive of the Institute for State Effectiveness, a think tank in Washington, and a former adviser to the UN and Afghan government, said unemployment was one of the root causes of insurgency and must be addressed.

"One of the reasons why young men are joining up various armed forces - whether the government forces, armed insurgent groups or just criminal gangs - is that there is no employment or livelihood. So it is very circular," she said. "To address some of the root causes of instability one does need to focus on job creation." hghafour@thenational.ae dsapsted@thenational.ae