Can perks sway Taliban?

KABUL — The Afghan government is crafting a plan to offer jobs, vocational training and other economic incentives to tens of thousands of Taliban foot soldiers willing to switch sides after eight years of war.

Officials hope the multimillion-dollar initiative, which would reach out to 20,000 to 35,000 low- to mid-level Taliban insurgents, will succeed where past programs have failed. Skeptics, though, wonder whether significant numbers of militants will stop fighting when they believe they're winning.

"If this works, it is the turning point in the war," said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai, who has promoted the idea of national reconciliation and has even offered to talk with the Taliban's top leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Afghan officials insist their program will be different from one in Iraq where entire platoons of Sunni insurgents who were shooting at U.S. forces one day were paid salaries the next to turn away from al-Qaida and join local security groups under American supervision.

The officials said their program, which will be discussed at a Jan. 28 conference on Afghanistan in London, would create conditions for individuals to lay down their arms while top Taliban leaders are urged to negotiate peace. The Taliban leadership has rejected this so long as foreign forces remain in Afghanistan.

Some Afghans, who fear for their safety and are frustrated by an ineffective, corrupt central government in Kabul, have seen little choice but to side with Taliban in their villages. The goal is to lure scores of Taliban fighters off the battlefield so that violence will drop and the Afghan government will have time to shore up governance and the nation's security forces.

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, told the German magazine Der Spiegel this month that the U.S. is ready to back a reintegration program for individual fighters or groups of fighters.