Afghan President Hamid Karzai's two-pronged initiative to offer Taliban combatants jobs and cash while enticing insurgent leaders to the political mainstream may be a first, tentative step toward peace. It is also a minefield.
The trip wires are so many that a touted peace assembly, or "jirga," of tribal elders and powerbrokers on May 29 may bring little but talk, confirming reconciliation with the Taliban after a nine-year war may be a new priority, but a formidable task. Even so, a new peace plan draft, offering Taliban leaders exile as well as removal from the UN sanctions list, does effectively recognize an end-game is in play, and that a negotiated deal with the Taliban appears increasingly the only way forward.
"I think there will be an inevitable impetus to reconciliation," said Matt Waldman, a Kabul-based Harvard University researcher. "The problem will be the level of mistrust is so high that it is impossible to move forward."
There could be space for negotiation despite the Taliban's initial rejection of peace offers, the conditions of which were seen as more of a surrender than a compromise by the insurgents, nine years after US-led troops overthrew the militants' Islamist government.
Two of the main reasons for optimism are the war weariness of the insurgents, and a belief the priority of many in the Taliban is not to take power but rather to battle foreign troops and provide security and Islamic justice in the face of corrupt national governance. Obama and Karzai discussed reconciliation moves this week in Washington, but gave little signs of any progress over moving forward with any talks.
Possibly the most immediate hurdle to any reconciliation moves is a US-led offensive against the Taliban in their southern heartland of Kandahar this summer. Washington is cautious about talks with the Taliban leadership, and if there are any, wants to be in a position of strength when they take place.
That view calls for inflicting a major military setback to the Taliban by sending 23,000 Afghan and NATO troops into Kandahar this summer. But critics say that offensive may only lead to a stalemated guerrilla war, more civilian casualties, and greater polarization between the two sides. Some reports and local polls say most residents in Kandahar want talks rather than war.
"Now we are in a war situation and they want to rely on war tactics in Kandahar," said Arsala Rahmani, a parliamentarian who served as a cabinet minister under the Taliban and who mediated between Karzai and the militants in 2008. But even without President Barack Obama's troop "surge," which is bringing an extra 30,000 troops into the country as a whole, the problems the reconciliation process would face are huge.
Take, for example, Karzai's government, widely criticized for corruption. In the eyes of the insurgents and many Afghans, both foreign forces and the government are painted with the same brush of mistrust. And that raises the question of who could act as the negotiator.
"It is issues like corruption and predatory government that pushed people into insurgency in the first place," said Thomas Ruttig, a former diplomat and now head of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "Why should people trust the government?" "Neither the international community not the government are honest brokers ... It is very difficult to find people trusted by both sides after 30 years of war."
This is why the peace draft offers exile and removing insurgents from the United Nation's sanction list, say experts. The terms are not aimed simply at enticing the Taliban to lay down arms, but help bridge a huge trust deficit even before talks begin.
History does not necessarily provide grounds for optimism. For all the attention to reconciliation in recent months, the current moves are not the first. Karzai's officials held then-secret talks with the Taliban in 2008. There have also been contacts with UN officials. They achieved little. The problem, experts say, is that there has been no coordinated effort to bring in countries like the United States and Pakistan, or respected and popular provincial -- and possibly anti-Karzai -- officials.
Support of a so far noncommittal United States is critical because of its dominant role in foreign military support and economic aid, while Pakistan helped bring the Taliban to power in the 1990s and continues be a place where they have important bases despite Islamabad's current official anti-Taliban stance.
PAKISTAN INTELLIGENCE ROLE
Pakistan's military intelligence service, the ISI, is widely believed to still provide support to the Afghan Taliban to leverage regional strategic influence against India. The recent capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban leader suspected by some of carrying out talks with Karzai without Islamabad's permission, confirmed many Afghans' beliefs Pakistan was determined to control their destiny. "There is a fear that any reconciliation would be outsourced to Pakistan," said Ruttig.
Some Afghans say a majority of Taliban foot soldiers and combatants are tired of war and would welcome offers of cash and jobs -- backed by international donors -- to leave the insurgency. "The Afghan Taliban are Afghans. They are our citizens," said Moein Maraystar, a lawmaker. "Many on the lower level want peace."
Others say the plan to win over foot soldiers may hurt efforts to reconcile with the Taliban leadership, which could see the move as an attempt by Washington and Karzai to divide and rule. It is also doubtful a stretched government could protect converted insurgents from Taliban retaliation.
Already the Taliban are flexing their muscles with killings of government officials in Kandahar. Some Taliban foot soldiers may be weary, but others remain motivated to fight by such factors as Islamist ideology and hatred of foreign troops. For fighters who are concerned about cash, there are ways to get it that do not involve joining the government side. Payments to insurgents from those who want to avoid trouble or receive "protection" are common.
"There is no shortage of money and funding," said Rahmani. "They are taking money from foreign contractors, from those who are involved in bringing logistics and supplies for the foreign forces, from TV channels, from mobile phone operators."
Harvard researcher Waldman had one final word of skepticism. A premature peace move may backfire unless the fundamental issues behind the conflict are resolved. "Of all the peace accords to stop civil wars, half have collapsed within five years." (Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Jerry Norton)