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In policy shift, US seeks to woo some Taliban

Depending on province, troops in Afghanistan to vary combat tactics

KABUL, Afghanistan -- US military officials, after two years of narrowly focusing on antiterrorist combat operations, say they are shifting to a broader strategy that includes trying to woo noncriminal members of the Islamic Taliban movement back into mainstream society and establishing long-term civilian assistance programs in conflict zones.

 

At the same time, the US military does not appear to be having serious second thoughts about combat tactics after two controversial raids this month in which a total of 15 children were inadvertently killed during US air assaults on two villages in Paktia and Ghazni provinces.

Lieutenant General David Barno, the new senior US military commander in Afghanistan, said in a wide-ranging interview last week that US military officials saw three distinct adversaries in different parts of the country, each requiring a different approach.

In southern provinces bordering Pakistan -- such as Khost and Paktika, where Arab Islamic extremists and Al Qaeda fighters have repeatedly attacked US bases -- Barno said US combat troops would continue to aggressively track down, capture, and kill as many as they could.

In northern border provinces such as Kunar and Nuristan, which armed followers of fugitive Afghan militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have used as a base for urban sabotage and links with other Islamic groups, Barno said US-led combat sweeps would also continue in an effort to isolate and destroy these forces.

But in southeastern provinces -- such as Ghazni, Zabol, and Kandahar, where revived Taliban forces have staged numerous attacks against civilians while also trying to win political influence -- Barno said US officials were shifting to an integrated approach that woos back former Islamic fighters into civilian life.

"Those who are criminals must be held accountable, but for the rank and file, the noncriminals, there will be opportunities for reconciliation and reintegration," Barno said. His remarks suggested that US officials now agree with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that the revived Taliban movement needs to be courted politically.

In numerous speeches and interviews, Karzai has made a distinction between what he describes as good and bad members of the Taliban. He said recently that as few as 150 Taliban officials might be guilty of terrorism and abuse and that the rest needed to be brought back into civilian life, as is the case with thousands of other former Afghan militia forces, who previously fought the Taliban but are being formally disarmed and offered job training.

Until recently, US military officials, headquartered at Bagram air base north of Kabul since the defeat of Taliban rule in late 2001, routinely mentioned Taliban and Al Qaeda forces together and always described the principal mission of some 11,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan as killing and capturing as many of both enemy groups as possible.

But Afghan and UN officials have conducted intensive consultations over the past two months, coinciding with Barno's arrival and with the shift of the US military command from Bagram to Kabul, the Afghan capital. US military officials said they had concluded that while Al Qaeda forces represent a diehard, armed threat, the Taliban revival was more complex and rooted in Afghan society and thus required a more comprehensive solution.

There have been unconfirmed reports that US military or civilian officials were meeting privately with some commanders of both the Taliban and Hekmatyar's forces. A senior former Taliban official, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, was recently released from US custody and has been rumored to be acting as a mediator between Afghan and Taliban officials.

"Our move of the senior headquarters to Kabul, instead of a semi-isolated area, recognizes the change of an era in Afghanistan," Barno said. From being "absolutely focused" on combat, he said, US military policy will now stress integrating a variety of efforts to stabilize and secure the country. "Our role will be to help set conditions for successful elections next summer," he said.

Afghanistan is moving gradually toward a democratic political system under US auspices, with a national constitutional assembly being held in the country this month and presidential elections scheduled for June. Parliamentary elections would be held later. Asked about the deaths of the 15 Afghan children in two US military raids in early December, and the potential adverse effect of such mistakes on civilian attitudes toward the US military role, Barno said officials would continue to refine their efforts to pinpoint targets and minimize civilian casualties, but would not become so cautious as to run the "risk of paralysis."

"The system is imperfect, and we learn from each incident," he said, adding that US military forces here might need to adjust the current balance of human vs. technical intelligence gathering. But if civilians are "co-located" with terrorists or weapons caches, that is a "callous decision by the enemy" rather than a flaw in American planning, Barno said.

International human rights groups have been highly critical of the two attacks. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said the US military should "increase precautions and explain intelligence failures" as a result. It said a "pattern of mistakes" had led to "too many civilian deaths and no clear changes" in US military operations planning.

In the new US military effort to win Afghan hearts and minds, a key component is to be the rapid expansion of regional military aid centers known as "provincial reconstruction teams" -- some American, some staffed by other NATO members -- into the heartland of the Taliban revival. Four such centers are already in operation, and eight more are expected to open by spring, including four in the troubled southeast. Last week, a new center opened in Kandahar, a major southeastern city that was once the Taliban religious headquarters. Barno said US military teams there would work with Afghan and UN officials, hoping to create a role model for other provinces.

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