By Adrian Croft
LONDON (Reuters) - Nearly 5,000 Taliban insurgents have either laid down their weapons or are moving toward doing so, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, said Wednesday. The Afghan government has launched a "reintegration" process aimed at encouraging insurgents to abandon their weapons and return to their villages. Under the program, fighters who wish to abandon the fight are vetted, disarmed and given jobs.
"There are some 700 or so individuals, former Taliban, who have officially gone through all the steps of the process of reintegration into society," Petraeus told the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense thinktank.
"There's another 2,000 or so that are in various stages of the process and we think there's another ... couple thousand that have literally gone to their homes and laid down their weapons," he said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday seven areas would be included in the first phase of a gradual transition of security from NATO troops to Afghan forces in July, the first step in a process intended to end with the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
Petraeus said Karzai clearly wanted to reach out to reach out to Taliban leaders. "There have been various efforts to do that, various strands," he said.
He said there had been contacts with high-ranking Taliban members, "but I don't want to overstate them and I obviously couldn't say with whom they've been, in recent months."
Karzai has held sporadic talks with current and former Taliban members, but with little apparent result. Taliban leaders have said no peace talks can happen while foreign troops are in Afghanistan.
Petraeus said he supported Afghan efforts to seek political reconciliation and he said the Northern Ireland peace process was a useful model for addressing grievances.
"But this has to be Afghan-led, this cannot be ISAF (the NATO-led force in Afghanistan), it cannot be individual countries leading this," he said.
He said the High Peace Council, set up by Afghanistan to seek a negotiated end to the violence, had been "quite active" in its travels. "They have met with various individuals in various locations outside Afghanistan," he said.
Petraeus said the United States would go ahead with plans to start bringing home U.S. troops in Afghanistan, who now number nearly 100,000, in July.
Petraeus said he would give U.S. President Barack Obama options and a recommendation on the drawdown and "we will implement (it)."
Only a small drawdown is expected following a year in which violence hit its highest level since the war began in 2001.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)