U.S. May Cede Afghan Provinces to Taliban

The Financial Times reports that the U.S. military is starting to soften its anti-Taliban policy in view of the reality that it does not possess sufficient troops to control the entire country on behalf of the weak central government of Hamid Karzai.

The US military supports Afghan government efforts to court moderate members of the former Taliban regime in a strategy to win political support in the troubled south, the leading US commander in Afghanistan has said.

General David Barno, commander of the US-led military coalition that is hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Afghanistan, called government overtures towards the moderates a “terrific effort”, but denied the US military was directly involved in talks.

“It’s a hugely important initiative that will help fracture the Taliban movement and bring the Taliban who are not criminals back into the realm of active Afghan society,” Gen Barno said in an interview with the Financial Times.

His comments reflect a shift in the US posture towards the former hardline regime and a change in strategy as it turns to political tactics and reconstruction, rather than solely military means, to counter Taliban insurgency.

“If you’re a rank and file Taliban member and you reject your past . . . then you can become part of the future of Afghanistan,” said Gen Barno. He believes there are between 100 and 150 Taliban leaders who were “essentially criminals”.

A reliable Pentagon source has told me for months that the Bush Administration is beginning to realize that Afghanistan will be Talibanized one way or another. Since a return to 2001 conditions seems more or less inevitable, U.S. planners are starting to consider negotiating a friendlier relationship than the one that prevailed before the October 2001 war. The first step to reaching an accomodation with the radical Islamist clerics we accused of harboring Osama bin Laden is cooperating with mid-level Talibs. If that works out well from the American standpoint, high-level Taliban leaders like Mullah Mohammad Omar could be in control–with U.S. approval–of such provinces as Helmand as early as 2005.

The Bush Administration, as I wrote in my book “To Afghanistan and Back” and subsequent columns, was never seriously dedicated to the occupation of Afghanistan or in establishing a viable post-invasion regime in Kabul. Many Central Asia watchers expect Afghanistan to be fully back into Taliban, or Taliban-like, control within about three years. The Defense Department’s new accomodationism would seem to be a first step towards withdrawal.

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