By Jim Michaels - USA Today
Posted : Wednesday Aug 31, 2011 20:14:08 EDT

The top coalition commander in Afghanistan told USA Today on Wednesday that he has ordered a “surge” in efforts to get Taliban fighters to renounce violence and return to village life based on recent intelligence suggesting they feel abandoned by their leaders.

Marine Gen. John Allen said the effort aims to quickly capitalize on plunging morale among insurgents in southern Afghanistan, once the backbone of the Taliban movement, and to lure militants back to their homes with jobs and other incentives.

“Now is the moment,” Allen said in an interview from Kabul.

Commanders have said they have picked up “chatter” from insurgents in the south suggesting they are angry that their top leaders have remained in Pakistan and other sanctuaries.

“Many of these fighters who have been on the battlefield for a whole variety of reasons have felt they have been abandoned by their intermediate Taliban leadership,” Allen said.

Afghan-led government efforts to reintegrate low-level fighters have been going on for more than a year but Allen says he is redoubling efforts to take advantage of tactical gains by coalition troops. Allen assumed command in Afghanistan six weeks ago from Army Gen. David Petraeus, who retired Wednesday.

Allen helped spearhead efforts in western Iraq in 2007 to nurture and expand a tribal-based movement opposed to the insurgency. The movement, known as the Sunni Awakening, helped reverse insurgents’ gains.

In Afghanistan, nearly 2,400 former fighters have gone through a reintegration program, and 3,000 more are waiting to do so. The program provides former militants with training and jobs to ease their reintegration into society.

Reintegration hasn’t led to a groundswell of fighters switching sides yet, said Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. He said militants remain wary of whether the Afghan government and coalition can protect them if they switch sides, and they are unsure that the government can defeat the Taliban, which has killed some fighters who have switched sides.

Success on the battlefield is an important component of convincing fighters to lay down their arms and rejoin society, commanders say.

“Nobody reintegrates to the losing side,” said Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That’s just not human nature.”