WASHINGTON — More than 1,700 former Taliban combatants have turned in their weapons to join a reintegration program started by the Afghan government nearly a year ago, the NATO general in charge of the program said Thursday.
"So far we've got about 1,740 former fighters who have formally joined the reintegration process," said British Major General Phil Johns, the director of the Force Reintegration Cell of the International Security Assistance Force.
"On top of this, the High Peace Council has at least another 40 to 45 groups in negotiations across the country," said Johns, referring to the Afghan agency in charge of political reconciliation.
"That may be as much as 2,000 fighters," added Johns, who was talking to reporters in Washington via teleconference from Kabul.
The peace process provides amnesty to former Taliban members who agree to renounce violence, sever ties with terrorist groups, and live under the Afghan constitution, said Johns.
The Afghan insurrection is composed mostly of Taliban fighters and members of the Haqqani network, which total around 25,000 men, he said.
Most of the time, a Taliban chief, accompanied by several men or sometimes several dozen men, decide to give up fighting, he said.
"These are life-changing decisions that people are making, and it is all built on trust and confidence," said Johns.
The program is financed with $141 million from the international community, of which $58 million comes from the US. Washington expects to spend some $12.8 billion in 2012 to help build the Afghan army.
Besides formal reintegration through the government-sanctioned process, Johns estimated that a number of other Taliban had put down their arms and returned to live in their villages without going through official channels.
In southwest Helmand province, in particular, the idea of surrender is associated with the formal reintegration process, which has led many former combatants to avoid the government-sponsored process.
"In Helmand, there's still a sense among some of the fighters that this smacks too much of surrender," said Johns. "There's still this psychology playing out there.
"The predatory reach of Taliban based in Pakistan is still a concern for people in central Helmand. The security conditions are such that they're saying, 'I'm not sure I want to get public, I want to stop fighting but silently rather than formally,'" Johns added.
Asked whether the killing of Osama bin Laden had made any difference in the number of Taliban wishing to reintegrate, Johns said it was too early to know.
"The dust is settling on the death of OBL," he said. "There is a sense of opportunity that is arising, but whether people are going to capitalize on these opportunities is yet to be seen."