KABUL, Afghanistan – The United States could cut its forces in Afghanistan next summer if Taliban (search) militants accept an amnesty to be drawn up by President Hamid Karzai (search) and neighboring Pakistan, the senior U.S. commander here said Sunday.
Any reduction in the 18,000-strong mainly American combat force in Afghanistan would relieve the U.S. military, stretched thin by the much larger deployment in Iraq. Still, the force is unlikely to shrink before parliamentary elections slated for April.
"By next summer we'll have a much better sense if the security threat is diminished as a result of, say, a significant reconciliation with large numbers of Taliban," Lt. Gen. David Barno told The Associated Press in an interview.
"That will change the security dynamics tremendously," he said.
Afghan officials have repeatedly urged supporters of the former ruling regime to abandon the fight or return from exile to help rebuild the country shattered by 25 years of war and a debilitating drought.
The Taliban, extreme Islamic fundamentalists who ruled Afghanistan and provided sanctuary for Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, were removed from power in a U.S.-backed invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
But plans for a reconciliation program have emerged only since Karzai's landslide victory in the landmark Oct. 9 presidential election. Such a program could anger ethnic minorities who suffered under the Taliban as well as regional powers, such as India and Iran, who are wary of Pakistan's influence in the region.
Barno said Karzai, who is to be sworn in as Afghanistan's first popularly elected leader on Tuesday, is to produce a list of Taliban members who are considered beyond rehabilitation and pass it to Islamabad.
The government of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would then "review it and make any comments on it, and I think there'll be a collectively subscribed-to list that says here (are those) who we all believe we're going to go after," he said.
"As that list gets finalized here ... we'll see both countries moving forward to look to arrest and bring to justice those individuals," Barno said. He said the final number could be whittled down to less than 100.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military will start a register of lower-level Taliban members willing to return to their villages and live in peace. The step would be a precursor to a reconciliation plan the Afghan government has yet to formally announce.
"There'll be great interest in those first few figures who come in to see how they're treated, to see if they're protected or not," the general said. "If it works, I think that there will be a significant number of people following it up.
"You'll see some of it starting in December, or in January for sure," he said.
The military hopes the Taliban's failure to derail the Oct. 9 vote has persuaded a significant number of the rebels that the insurgency has no future, easing pressure on U.S. troops who have failed to crush a rebellion along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Commanders say the Taliban are divided internally and that the authority of fugitive Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is fraying. Supporters of renegade Afghan leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a group viewed as smaller but more fanatical than the Taliban, Barno said, are also signaling their willingness to give up the fight.
"We're in a democratic transition in the country. The presidential election was part one of that. The national assembly elections here in the spring will be part two of it, and that's very much the centerpiece of our military efforts," Barno said.
Karzai has said his new Cabinet, to be announced within a week of his swearing-in, will have new faces. It is speculated that they could include Taliban-linked figures.
Barno said he also expected to see "significant changes" among provincial officials, some of whom have been criticized for eliminating local rivals by denouncing them as Taliban supporters -- a tactic American commanders concede they have fallen for.
That, too, could help reduce the need for U.S. ground troops, particularly as the fledgling Afghan National Army pumps out more graduates from its American-led training program and NATO looks to expand to the west of the country.
"We're going to maintain our connections to the Afghans here over the long haul ... but we may not need the same force strength if the security situation continues to improve," Barno said.