Karzai has called for low-ranking Taliban members to make peace and help rebuild Afghanistan.
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Eased-up American military operations could persuade former Taliban militants to return home from countries such as Pakistan, the chief of the U.N. refugee agency said Saturday.
Thousands of Taliban supporters fled to Pakistan and Iran -- many with their entire families -- when U.S. forces and Afghan anti-Taliban militias drove them from power in late 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden. The exodus was just the latest during more than 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan dating back to a communist coup in 1978 and the Soviet invasion a year later.
To encourage their return, the U.S. military's offensive operations could become "more selective," Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said during an interview with The Associated Press.
"It will be very good to give some chance, some oxygen if you like, to normalcy in these regions [where] people are allowed to come back and are not in an atmosphere any more of confrontation," he said.
"The big shots of the Taliban will of course stay out because they will be imprisoned immediately," Lubbers said. "But the more rank-and-file people, normal people, I think there you will see more" willingness to return.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has dismissed a stubborn Taliban-led insurgency as a minor threat and repeatedly called for low- and mid-ranking members to make peace and help rebuild Afghanistan after more than two decades of war.
Government officials claim many have since signaled their wish to come back from neighboring countries, and the top U.S. commander here told AP last month that a big repatriation could prompt a reduction in his 18,000-strong force. But few appear to have taken the plunge.
The military is engaged in a winter-long campaign to prevent militants from threatening elections planned for the spring. Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar and Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden remain at large.
Refugees who returned
In all, about 3 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2001, but only a fraction of those are from border provinces such as Zabul and Paktika, where the hardline militia remain active.
Lubbers said an additional 400,000 refugees likely would return to Afghanistan this year.
However, others wish to stay in Pakistan or Iran because of the difficulty of reclaiming abandoned Afghan homes and land and the lack of jobs or basic services in areas viewed as unsafe by relief organizations.
Many returnees have ended up in booming cities such as Kabul, where nearly 1 million refugees have created a desperate shortage of accommodation.
With the United Nations providing only emergency help and no sign of long-planned government housing projects, the dozens of families living in the capital's war-damaged former Russian cultural center see little hope.
"When I was a farmer, I was carefree as a butterfly," said Dost Mohammed, a man of about 80 originally from Panjshir province who now lives in a tiny room made of scavenged cement blocks and plastic sacks inside the ruined complex. "Now look what has become of us."
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