NEW YORK - Few Taliban fighters are laying down their arms to enroll in Afghanistan's western-funded programme that aims to bring them over to the government side. Of the 1,700 fighters who have enrolled in the 10-month-old program, only a handful are midlevel commanders, and two-thirds are from the north, where the insurgency is much weaker than in the south, said Major General Phil Jones, the director of a NATO unit that is monitoring the programme, according to The New York Times. The total is only a fraction of the 20,000 to 40,000 Taliban insurgents, and many of the fighters who have taken advantage of the programme may not even be Taliban, just men with weapons, the newspaper said in dispatch from Kabul. The Talibans leaders have yet to embrace reconciliation, the Times said. Defence Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged publicly Sunday that the United States had begun preliminary reconciliation talks with members of the Taliban, but he expressed scepticism about the results. Other diplomats said that a significant number of Taliban fighters will not switch sides unless such talks advance. But Western governments are committed to the plan to persuade fighters to switch sides, the dispatch said. "It is well financed, with $140 million of the $150 million pledged from Western governments, much of it from the United States and Japan, already in Afghan accounts," an unidentified Western military official was cited as saying. The money provides a small, short-term stipend to fighters who change sides, and then rewards their communities with generous development and job programs rather than handing out money or jobs to fighters, the Times said. The incentives were designed to prevent abuses of past programmes, under which fighters would change sides with the seasons, collecting money in the winter, then resuming the fight in the spring or summer. General Jones said the programme has grown more slowly in the south and east because many fighters fear that if they lay down their arms, the Taliban will take revenge on them or their families. A Western diplomat in Kabul who is familiar with the preliminary negotiations with the Taliban said, Well only see big numbers when there is a little more progress on the political track. For that to happen, he said, its important how Pakistan responds. Even so, Western officials say they hope that fighters who have local gripes can be persuaded to enroll in the programme. You have to look at the motivation of the people doing the fighting, a Western diplomat was quoted as saying in Kabul. A number of people became involved because of local disputes over land, over power, over family honour. You dont need a deal with the Taliban leadership to solve those, the official said. The Taliban is a flag of convenience for them. The programmes relatively slow growth points to an array of difficulties, according to Afghan governors, NATO officials, members of the High Peace and Reintegration Council and Western diplomats, the dispatch said. There are logistical problems: each province must have a peace and reconciliation committee to serve as an intermediary between active Taliban commanders and the government. Special bank accounts had to be set up to keep track of the money sent to the provincial governors to run the programme. Afghan and NATO officials also have difficulty confirming the identities of those who say they want to switch, it said.