(Reuters) - As many as 900 Afghan fighters have agreed to lay down their arms, a senior NATO official said on Monday, but it is too soon to say if a drive to bring in low-level fighters can be decisive in curbing bloodshed.
Major General Philip Jones, who leads NATO support of the Afghan government's efforts to broker peace with various militant factions, said reintegration of local fighters had begun in earnest three or four months ago.
"The pace of people coming into the program has picked up ... but the initial steps are the first in a very long process of trying to build peace," Jones told reporters in Kabul.
"It's a tough and complicated and very human process at all levels, but of course it would be after 20 years of war and 10 years of insurgency."
Yet many thousands more full- or part-time fighters from the Taliban and other militant groups will need to halt their hostilities if Afghanistan is to emerge from bloodshed.
Violence reached its highest level last year in nearly a decade of fighting after the Taliban government was overthrown, as U.S. President Barack Obama sent some 30,000 extra soldiers to take on Taliban militants dug in across southern Afghanistan.
After heavy fighting last year, parts of the southern Taliban heartland are more secure and Afghan and Western officials are hoping to rout the Taliban's spring offensive.
But the Taliban, the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, and other groups remain well-armed and determined and bloodshed has intensified in eastern Afghanistan and spread to once-secure areas of the country's north and west.
RISK VS REWARD
Central to any lasting improvement will be support from Pakistan
in reining in militants along the Afghan border and better governance in Afghanistan, where corrupt officials have driven many villagers into the arms of the insurgency.
President Hamid Karzai sees reconciliation with Taliban leaders as the key to ending the war but there are few signs of traction despite more than a year of support for high-level talks.
At the other end of the militant spectrum, Jones said at least 45 armed groups or possibly more were in talks with the government on lower-level or local reintegration.
Those who want to sign up must stop fighting, cut ties with other militants and embrace the Afghan constitution. They provide the government biometric information and surrender heavy weapons but are allowed to keep arms deemed essential for self-defense.
In return, they are promised some level of protection from militant retribution and may get limited assistance and aid projects for their communities.
Yet at least a dozen fighters who signed up with reintegration programs have been attacked or killed and the Taliban have made it clear that "anyone who steps into this process has a death sentence over their head", Jones said.
As foreign forces begin to withdraw gradually from July this year, an end to hostilities at the local level may be as important as decisions from Taliban leaders.
"It's not to say that peace in
our time is around the corner," Jones said. "But there is a huge sense of war weariness."