The general in charge of persuading Afghan fighters to put down their weapons has estimated that there are as many as 36,000 insurgents, giving a rare appraisal of the fighting force at the command of the Taliban.
Reiterating the view that finding jobs for those fighting Western and Afghan forces was the key to ending the war, Major-General Richard Barrons said of the militants: Some are ideological full-time jihadis, some are linked to the insurgency for localised reasons, local grievances; some because its a way to make a living; some because they like to fight; some because their communities are hedging their bets between the Government and the insurgency.
He added, pointedly, that the Karzai Government had done little to earn the trust of its people, while the Taleban had in some cases provided better basic governance.
Assessing the militants numbers, General Barrons said: There are probably 900 in the leadership, counting very junior to very senior, and there are between 25,000 and 36,000 people who would call themselves fighters.
More than 100,000 US and Nato forces, together with about 200,000 Afghan soldiers and police, outnumber the insurgents roughly ten-to-one. Instead of simply fighting them, General Barrons runs a Nato reintegration cell trying to understand what motivates the militants to fight and using that information to help Afghan officials to tempt them to swap sides.
The incentives for peace expected to cost about $1 billion (670 million) over the next five years include jobs, money, training and sustainable development. These are goals which have eluded most of Afghanistan since the US-led invasion eight years ago. This is not about fixing all the many problems of Afghanistan, he said. This is about getting sons home to their families and families in their communities turning against the insurgency.
Despite $17 billion spent on aid since 2001, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries on earth, with 850 children under 5 dying every day, according to Save the Children. Literacy and unemployment run at roughly 30 per cent.
This need not be a desperately poor place, General Barrons said. Given time [and] investment you really could deliver a better life for the many. If what this country is going to need is truck drivers and miners and bridge builders we should connect them with training that will help them do that.
The plan echoes a British-backed initiative abandoned in 2007 when President Karzai expelled the diplomats who designed it, for negotiating with the Taliban without his permission.
General Barrons said that in many instances Nato and the Taliban had been fighting for paper-thin reasons, but in some cases he said Mr Karzais Government was part of the problem. People have found the local representatives predatory, corrupt and incapable of improving their lives, he said.
President Karzai has promised change but has so far failed to deliver. A new reform programme is expected to be unveiled this month. (The Times)