ISTANBUL – NATO does not intend to bribe Taliban guerrillas to defect to the Afghan government side as a way to end the war, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday, dismissing concerns over the latest plan to end the country's growing insurgency.
Fogh Rasmussen's comments came amid a renewed push to make peace with moderate Taliban insurgents and draw them into the political process. The North Atlantic alliance has strongly backed an Afghan plan to bring the insurgents over to the government's side.
On Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Saudi Arabia, hoping the kingdom would help persuade Taliban militants to take part in a negotiated settlement to the war. Saudi Arabia has a unique relationship with the Taliban since it was one of the few countries to recognize its regime in Afghanistan before it was ousted in 2001.
In a post on the alliance's Web site ahead of a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Istanbul, Fogh Rasmussen said a new $140 million trust fund would offer insurgents an alternative to remaining with the Taliban.
"Much attention is on the new reconciliation and reintegration effort initiated by the Afghan government. Questions were raised if we are bribing the Taliban just to get peace," he said. "I understand why this is a sensitive issue for many."
He said many rank-and-file insurgents were not fighting against the government and international troops for religious and ideological reasons.
"They fight for the Taliban for small amounts of money to simply make a living or for other grievances," he said. "What is on offer to them is the chance of a new life."
Critics have noted that plans to persuade the Taliban to switch sides have existed for years, but these have generally been ineffective, attracting only the lowest-level fighters with no guarantees they wouldn't return to the insurgency.
And despite those incentives, the insurgency has expanded steadily. In 2004, NATO estimated that fewer than 400 Taliban were left in Afghanistan. By last year, that figure had grown to about 25,000, with the latest estimates in early 2010 raising that number to nearly 30,000.
The near-doubling of the international forces since 2008 also does not seem to have affected the escalating rebellion. And the sharp upswing in allied casualties is threatening to further undermine waning public support for the war in Europe and America.
Sinan Ogan of the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis said the Taliban have significantly expanded their political network over the past six years. That and the guerrillas' military successes makes it unlikely they will accept talks with the government unless their conditions — including the withdrawal of international troops — are met.
Still, even agreeing to sit at the table with Karzai's representatives would be a major propaganda victory for the rebels, he said.
"Gaining any kind of legitimacy would make the Taliban even stronger," Ogan said. "They would begin to dictate conditions to Karzai and to the West."