It’s a good idea to create a “reintegration” program that will allow fighters to leave the Taliban with some prospect of employment, education, housing, and other essentials. That’s what the government of Afghanistan, in cooperation with the U.S., Britain, and other allies, is announcing today in London. Just don’t expect a lot of Taliban defectors to make use of the program until security conditions change on the ground.
As it stands now, former Taliban are more worried about their lives than their livelihoods, and for good reason: in the climate of pervasive insecurity that still exists in much of eastern and southern Afghanistan, Afghan and NATO forces do not have the ability to protect the people from Taliban retribution. That means that Taliban interested in self-preservation — which, it is safe to assume, means most of them — will not switch sides until the balance of power shifts, and it begins to look as if they are leaving the losing side for the winning side.
That calculus applies just as strongly to efforts to encourage high-level reconciliation — i.e., to lure high-level Taliban into the government — or tribal engagement. These are both good ideas that have scant chance of success right now. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week, “until the Taliban leadership sees a change in the momentum and begins to see that they are not going to win, the likelihood of significant reconciliation at senior levels is not terribly great.”
The problem is that it will take some time to change the momentum on the ground. All of the 30,000-plus reinforcements ordered to Afghanistan by President Obama will not arrive until the end of the summer, at best. Then they will have to go to villages where the Taliban lurk and win the trust of the people. Good counterinsurgency cannot be done quickly, yet the troops know that they are on the clock: Obama has said he will begin a drawdown beginning in the summer of 2011. The Taliban know it, too, and that makes it easier for them to keep wavering Afghans in line by telling them that they cannot trust the Americans to protect them. That very public deadline makes it harder to get momentum and thus sabotages the very efforts at reintegration, reconciliation, and tribal engagement that the administration is now promoting.