U.S. optimistic over new Taliban reintegration plan
* Holbrooke says new program is "good plan"
* Allies hope plan will be unveiled before London meeting
* Previous Taliban reintegration efforts failed
By Sue Pleming
KABUL, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said on Saturday a new Afghan plan to reintegrate thousands of Taliban fighters could not be worse than past efforts and Washington supported the program.
Afghanistan's government is expected this month to announce details of the plan, which diplomats said would include jobs training and economic incentives to lure fighters from the hills.
Speaking to reporters on a visit to Kabul, U.S. special representative for the region, Richard Holbrooke, said he discussed the issue with President Hamid Karzai on Saturday and that he believed it was a "good plan".
"We are ready to support it," he said, declining to offer any details of the program, which was hammered out in meetings in Abu Dhabi earlier this week between international donors and the Afghan government.
Previous efforts to win over Taliban fighters failed miserably because little attempt was made to offer protection or financial incentives.
The new program comes at a time when the insurgency is at its strongest since the Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001, and fighters who think victory is in sight may be less interested in any offer.
Holbrooke said the latest initiative would be different, although he did not specify how. "It can't be worse (than previous efforts)," he said.
He described a visit he took to eastern Afghanistan several years ago when he interviewed five fighters who had turned themselves in.
"It was a failure. They did not think promises were kept. We have to learn from the past. That is what we are here for."
Western allies hope the Afghan government's reintegration strategy will be announced before an international conference in London on January 28, when seed money is expected to be put into a reintegration fund to help pay for the new program.
Holbrooke said many Taliban would return to civilian life if given the chance.
"There are a lot of people out there fighting for the Taliban who have no ideological commitment to the principles, values or political movement led by Mullah Omar," he said, referring to the Taliban leader.
"This is not easy to do but if you don't do it, you give people only two choices, kill or get killed," he said.
Western allies have been working with the Afghan government for weeks to devise a new strategy, which will include job creation programs and vocational training, particularly in agriculture, as well as some protection.
The goal was to try and reward whole communities rather than just fighters who put down their arms.
"This is a balancing act," said a U.S. official in Kabul who requested anonymity. "We don't want to alienate people or communities who did not take up arms against the government."
The hope is that by reintegrating Taliban fighters, it will put pressure on the leadership to enter into reconciliation talks with Karzai.
"We hope that reintegration done well is a confidence builder that encourages reconciliation," said the U.S. official.
However, Afghan political analyst and former finance minister Hamidullah Tarzi was pessimistic that the plan would work because of deep suspicions among the Taliban about the Afghan government's intentions.
"The Taliban does not have faith in Karzai. They think he will betray them if they come in and then give them to the foreign powers," Tarzi told Reuters.
Many of the Taliban fighters were being supported by people in the provinces because they delivered services the government failed to offer, he said. (Additional reporting by Peter Graff; editing by Noah Barkin) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/afghanistanpakistan)