- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

Some Taliban leaders caught during the U.S.-led offensive are seeking Afghan and U.S. military help to reintegrate into Afghan society amid mounting evidence that other Taliban commanders have fled the country, leaving fighters to fend for themselves, according to a senior U.S. military official.

Although the number of Taliban surrendering are few, it is a sign that the U.S.-Afghan offensive in Marjah in the southern Helmand province is having a debilitating effect on the Taliban insurgency, U.S. officials said.

“Some Taliban are asking to reintegrate, but only some,” the senior military official told The Washington Times. “Enemy forces are departing to the west and north, especially leaders, and leaving the fighters behind to fight.”

The growing success of the offensive, coupled with the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second in command of the Afghan Taliban, is expected to aid U.S. and Afghan officials in luring other would-be and current insurgent fighters away from Taliban leadership. U.S. officials are hoping to reintegrate the more moderate fighters back into Afghan society.

“Fighting is not over, still lots of clearing to do, so don’t count chickens yet, but good progress is being made,” the senior official said.

Residents in Marjah are also giving up information and telling the whereabouts of key Taliban fighters and weapons, the official added.

“Numerous examples of the people telling on the Taliban, all good, but they are also asking, ‘Will you stay?’” The official said the “answer is yes.”

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are keeping a close eye on reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Wednesday the U.S. will not participate unless the insurgents renounce al Qaeda, according to the Associated Press.

“We are watching this. We are talking to people,” Mr. Holbrooke said. “The United States is not in direct contact with Taliban leadership. Why not? Because they aren’t renouncing al Qaeda. We’re not going to talk to people who are affiliated with al Qaeda.”

His comments came the same day as a spokesman for the government of the Maldives announced that officials representing the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan were in talks late last month in the Indian Ocean island nation.

Mr. Holbrooke did not mention the gathering in Maldives.

According to reports from the region, the delegations held three days of talks in January hoping to find a solution to the eight-year-old Afghan conflict.

Taliban representatives attending the meeting included the son of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious warlord and former Afghan prime minister. His insurgency group is fighting daily battles and planting explosives against U.S. and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan.

Mr. Holbrooke told reporters at the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, that there have been lots of “indirect contacts” with the Taliban, but he dismissed the impression there was a “peace negotiation going on somewhere in the shadows,” the AP reported.

Mr. Holbrooke went on to say that the Obama administration’s main goal was to destroy and dismantle al Qaeda and that if the Taliban renounce ties with the terrorist group, that would change the U.S. position.

An Afghan official, who lived under the former Taliban regime, said allowing the Taliban back into leadership would be a major error on the part of the U.S. government.

“The majority of Afghan people do not want to live under the fear of the Taliban,” the Afghan official, from the southern province of Kandahar, told The Times. “If the Taliban take control again, the country will be right back where it started at the beginning of the war. They will harbor al Qaeda, or groups like it, once again.”

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