KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The U.S. has a role to play in setting the conditions for members of the Taliban to lay down their weapons and move back into Afghanistan’s society, the top U.S. commander for the war said Thursday.
Noting that integration talks are already going on behind the scenes, Gen. John Nicholson said U.S. and Afghan officials are working out a plan that will lay out how the U.S. will support the peace effort.
Some of the steps could include providing funding and setting up a system to remove certain groups from the U.S. list of terror suspects, which will help convince them they can return to their communities without being targets of American counterterrorism strikes.
“We have work to do,” Nicholson said as he sat in a small building on the edge of the Kandahar Airfield runway. “Some things need to be put in place to enable this. They need to know they can move back securely, live in safety.”
Just outside the door, the governor of Kandahar was waiting to talk to him.
“A number of these folks are interested in returning to Kandahar,” Nicholson told a small group of reporters. “This is what we talk about. How we can enable this to happen.”
The prospect for peace negotiations with the Taliban has long been a goal, but it comes fraught with challenges and will take years. U.S. military leaders say that after more than 16 years of war, Taliban members may be weary and factions could be split apart and enticed to the peace table.
Senior U.S. defense officials, including Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, who was in Afghanistan last week, define victory as a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. And while he acknowledged that getting the Taliban to reconcile en masse may be “a bridge too far,” he said elements could be brought in piecemeal.
President Donald Trump, however, said on Jan. 29 that he sees no basis for peace talks as long as the Taliban are “killing people left and right.”
The Taliban, meanwhile, has insisted that talks for a conflict-ending compromise must take place with Washington, not Kabul. While U.S. officials urge the group to negotiate with the Afghan government.
Nicholson sounded an urgent tone, saying that some Taliban members are “ready to reintegrate now” whether there’s a broader peace deal with the larger group or not. “We want to be able to accommodate that,” he said.
In various insurgent strongholds across the country, military commanders said they only had limited experience so far with Taliban members turning themselves in and seeking reintegration.
In those scattered cases, Nicholson said, there is often a small, yet symbolic, ceremony, and the members turn in their weapons and agree to return to society. For its part, the local government promises they will not be jailed, but will be allowed to remain in the community and not be targeted.
Down in Kandahar, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Stryker, who is an adviser for the Afghan police, said he’s only heard of one instance so far. Stryker said the police chief in Urozgan had a 22-year-old Taliban fighter turn in his weapons and rejoin the community.
Nicholson and other commanders say that military, political and social pressure is needed to convince more to turn themselves in. He said a key moment will be if the Afghans can hold a secure and successful election later this year -which will legitimize the government.
The election was initially planned for July, but it hasn’t yet been officially announced by the election commission yet, and it can’t happen until six months after that announcement.
All told, he said, it will require significant effort and take years to play out.
There may be a time, he said, when some reconciliation is taking place while fighting is still going on.
“I expect we’re in that period right now,” he said. “We have talking going on, the offers are out there. We are still fighting. I anticipate this will continue.”