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US eyes cut in troops in Afghanistan

Taliban to be offered amnesty

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The United States could cut its forces in Afghanistan next summer if Taliban militants accept an amnesty to be drawn up by President Hamid Karzai and neighboring Pakistan, the senior US commander in Kabul said yesterday.

Any reduction in the 18,000-strong mainly American combat force in Afghanistan would relieve the US 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," Lieutenant General David Barno said. ''That will change the security dynamics tremendously."

Afghan officials have 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 Osama bin Laden, were removed from power in a US-backed invasion after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the United States.

But plans for a reconciliation program have emerged only since Karzai's landslide victory in the 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 set to be sworn in as Afghanistan's first popularly elected leader tomorrow, is expected to produce a list of Taliban members who are considered beyond rehabilitation and pass it to Islamabad.

The government of General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, then would ''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," Barno said.

''As that list gets finalized here . . . we'll see both countries moving forward to look to arrest and bring to justice those individuals," he added. He said the final number could be whittled to fewer than 100.

Meanwhile, the US 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," Barno 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."

The military hopes that 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 US troops who have been unable to crush a rebellion along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Commanders say that the Taliban are divided internally and that the authority of fugitive Taliban 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 willingness to give up the fight.

''We're in a democratic transition in the country," Barno said. ''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."

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