Afghan's new interior minister: Yes, I'll make peace with Taliban

The newly appointed interior minister, Haneef Atmar, in Afghanistan is prepared to go the extra mile for a settlement with the Taliban.

One could be forgiven for thinking the man required to end the Taliban insurgency, take on corruption and defeat the drug traffickers would be a moustachioed hard man with a bandolier of bullets slung over his shoulder. But the newly appointed Afghan interior minister, Haneef Atmar, is a slim and elegant man, fluent in four languages, who rarely raises his voice. This week Mr Atmar, who is well regarded by the West as a capable technocrat with a clean record on corruption, emerged as a key figure in the London conference on Afghanistan.

The Herculean burden of reforming the corrupt judiciary and police force, which is the source of most of the disenchantment Afghans have with their government, will fall on him. In a wide-ranging interview with The National at his central London hotel, Mr Atmar set out the priorities and challenges which will be tackled when the Afghan cabinet returns to Kabul today. The first is organising a grand peace jirga of tribal elders in Kabul this spring and inviting the Taliban, whose forces have established shadow governments in nearly all of the 34 provinces, to participate.

Mr Atmar, 41, said the government was willing to make peace with Mullah Omar, the one-eyed fugitive leader of the Taliban who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan, but it will be up to the grand council to decide. "If the Afghan people are ready to forgive people like Mullah Omar, and obviously it is their choice, then we as a government will have to accept that fact." He was dismissive of reports that the Taliban have already rejected reconciliation through statements published on the internet.

"When we talk about Taliban and the different groups, they are not a monolithic organisation, so you cannot make a generalised statement about what they are and what they want to do." Mr Atmar straddles several divides in the Afghan government. He has credentials with the former communists because he was an intelligence officer in the Afghan-backed Soviet regime. He fought on communists' side and lost a leg in a battle. He walks with a cane.

Yet his tribal credentials are impeccable. He hails from an aristocratic Pashtun family in Laghman province, which is currently under Taliban control. The Americans and Europeans like him because he is a technocrat. When the mujahideen seized Kabul in 1992, and the communist government collapsed, he fled to Britain where he earned two degrees from the University of York. His time in academia has given him a scholarly, deliberate manner.

He served as education and rural affairs minister in the previous administration, but the new job is perhaps his hardest yet. He explained that the Taliban's leadership comprised up to 20 people at the head of an operational command which numbered about 1,000. The leaders and some commanders were hardcore ideologues. On the other hand, the foot soldiers, between 15,000 and 20,000 men, are believed to be fighting because of money or anger at corruption and lack of opportunities. It is hoped they will switch sides if given a job and training package in exchange for laying down arms, recognising the Kabul government and its constitution.

To this end, an international trust fund was announced on Thursday with US$140 million (Dh514m) pledged for the first year by international donors. But Mr Atmar said the Taliban would not be paid cash bribes to stop fighting, contrary to reports over the past week. "This is definitely not true. What will cost money is the training and jobs." He acknowledged that not everyone would sign up. "This plan will not work for everybody. There are those who have a vested interest in continuation of violence and we'll have to work on other disincentives so that they know they are not going to win."

One of the "disincentives" is the arrival of 30,000-strong US troop surge this summer. The idea is to hammer the Taliban into submission so they have no choice but to accept a peaceful reconciliation. The training schools which are churning out the suicide bombers and attackers are across the border in Pakistan and Mr Atmar called on the country's leadership to do more to shut them down. "Our issue with them is that as long as the terrorist sanctuaries exist in Pakistan, there won't be any regional stability. It won't do Pakistan any good and it won't allow Afghans to live in peace. We appreciate the fact that recently there have been steps taken by the government of Pakistan at least against the Pakistani Taliban. We're also hoping they will do the same when it comes to the sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban."

The London conference had to manage two contradictory expectations. The Afghan government and civil society groups wanted reassurances that the West would not abandon its pledge made after September 11, 2001 to help establish a strong, functioning state even if the past nine years have been largely wasted. But the war is unpopular in Nato countries and as more western soldiers die, the demands for withdrawal grow louder.

Much was made of Thursday's announcement that Afghans would take over responsibility for security after five years. But there are caveats in the final communiqué. It states that responsibility for "a number" of provinces will be handed to Afghan forces who will take a "lead" role, "providing conditions are met", starting late this year or 2011, with Nato moving into a "supporting role" within those provinces. Nato soldiers are expected to retreat into roles such as mentoring, while Afghan soldiers move to the frontline of battles.

"It's not the beginning of large-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan," said Mr Atmar. "This is not our understanding. When the end of that process is, we don't know yet. That pretty much depends on development of the situation and the prevailing security situation will then determine the scale and the speed and the different phases of such a process." The strategy is clear, hold, build: as the foreign and Afghan armies regain territory from the insurgents, they will secure it so aid workers can move in and begin development.

But none of it will be easy. For a start, the West will have to make a 20-year financial commitment because Afghanistan cannot afford to pay for a vast, expensive security force of 171,000 soldiers and 134,000 police, he said. The police have been criticised as incompetent and ill-prepared because the training is only eight weeks long. Mr Atmar said this would increase to 16 weeks to improve quality.

Another problem is corruption. Top officials routinely take bribes for appointing police officers and protecting drug traffickers, who run Afghanistan's $4 billion-a-year opium trade, from arrest. The minister has established a major crimes task force, a special prosecutor and a court designed to deal with corruption cases. As police units are built up, the government may establish village self-defence forces, in the style of the ancient arbaki system, to provide immediate security. A decision is expected to be made before a second international conference in Kabul convenes later this spring.

"The concept has been developed but has not yet [received] approval from the president of Afghanistan." He added: "They would spend a year or two in their own communities for protection and over time receive training to come and join the Afghan army and the Afghan police. But they are not tribal militias." He rejected suggestions that Iraqi-style tribal awakening councils be set up in the Pashtun provinces to fight al Qa'eda and the Taliban.

In Iraq, the strategy helped the Americans turn the tide against the insurgency because the tribes were fed up with al Qa'eda's brutality. The idea has gained traction in Afghanistan. "We don't need to replicate somebody else's experience. Afghanistan has always had a tribal, community-based system of defence and security," said Mr Atmar. Over the past few years the drugs trade, insurgency and corruption have become so deeply rooted that Mr Atmar could face massive, violent opposition from established criminal syndicates.

He seemed well aware of this. As several Afghan delegates shook his hand in the lobby of the hotel, offering congratulations on the new job, Mr Atmar murmured: "Condolences, perhaps."