How to Reintegrate the Taliban?

Prof. Alpaslan Özerdem*

One of the main agenda items at the last NATO Summit in Lisbon in November 2010 was to find an exit strategy for the international community to leave Afghanistan by 2014. This took place in an increasingly worsening security situation in Afghanistan as well as a deepening political rift between the Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States. There are already serious differences between both sides in the way they perceive security challenges faced by the country and how they could be addressed. As Ahmed Rashid points out Karzai’s support for the US-led ‘war on terrorism’ has waned significantly, with continuing high levels of violence in southern Afghanistan primarily in Kandahar and Helmand provinces being perceived major destabilizing factor for the entire country. Karzai would like to see the end of war tactics such as night raids used by the US Special Forces which have been disruptive and intrusive for civilians (Financial Times, 19 No- vember, p.9). Such a fault line in the Afghan-US relationship is compounded by the emergence of a much bigger challenge over the last couple of months over the question of how to deal with the Taliban. According to Rashid, the President sees the strengthening of Afghan relationships with the regional countries of Pakistan and Iran as a viable alternative to NATO in the quest of ending the war and finding a political settlement. This shift in turn is seen as a betrayal by the intervening powers in the country. However, the political and security context in the country are such that almost all primary stakeholders including NATO are recognising the need to deal with such a challenge urgently.

The international community has already initiated this process under the umbrella of a programme called Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP). It is still in its early days in terms of proposing concrete reintegration programmes that can be used as inducements for convincing the Taliban to hand in their weapons and stop fighting in return of socio-economic reintegration opportunities. The Taliban as a movement relied on poorly educated young men, most of whom were the children of those Afghans who took refuge in Pakistan. Although their name is derived from the Persian word ‘Talib’, meaning student, the Taliban typically had only limited and very partial knowledge of Islamic and Afghan history, or even the Quran. Influenced by the Deobandi school of thought, the Taliban models a strict and, in the eyes of many other Muslims around the world, distorted understanding of the practice of Islam. In their isolation in Pakistan, they had little if any contact with respected Muslim scholars and have been unbending in their refusal to tolerate discussion. The Taliban’s support in Afghanistan has always been from the Pashtun community, making the southern provinces of the country fertile ground for their activities. Moreover, the Taliban leadership has been almost exclusively Pashtun, and it was because of this ethnic identity and total linkages that they enjoyed widespread support from both the government and the people of Pakistan.

As part of this planning process for demobilizing the Taliban, I have been invited to undertake a preliminary study on the possible options for reintegration in the country and there are clearly a number of challenges even in the planning stage. My reflections here are as follows. First of all, as many other war-affected environments, there is a scarcity of reliable information on the very caseload that the APRP will be targeting. Having talked to a number of key participants from the international community and national authorities, it is estimated that there would be 25,000 – 30,000 of ex-Taliban combatants may be part of this programme. In order to present an even-handed approach, and to limit resentment among the population at large, a similar number of former Mujahedin and civilians might also benefit from the programme, especially if a community- based approach is adopted for the implementation of reintegration programmes. In other words, the overall plans for reintegration could be made for a caseload of approximately 50,000 participants, and among them, 2,000 – 3,000 combatants would be commanders at different ranks or leadership level. In terms of possible age groups in the caseload, it is estimated that they would primarily range from 14 to 45, in which around 50% of them are likely to be in their 20s. However, it should be noted that at this stage these are only ‘guestimates’, and more importantly, it is not clear how many Taliban combatants would actually want to be part of this disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) process. In other words, although it is highly worrying, it is often a striking reality of war-torn environments that the international community is embarking on a $ 900 million project without quite knowing how many Taliban would be there to take the reintegration offer.

Secondly, as the case in almost all DDR contexts, it is important to know the duration of involvement in fighting in the profiling of a caseload and with the Taliban, it is considered that the majority of the caseload would have spent between two to eight years in fighting. However, people drift in and out of the Taliban and spend long periods in their own communities, for example during the poppy harvest, which should be factored into the planning of programmes. In Afghanistan, experience shows that most combatants usually take part in fighting on a ‘part-time’ basis and no more than in the five-kilometer radius of their homes, or in other words, most of the caseload for Taliban DDR is likely to be already ‘home-based’. Therefore, the whole concept of ‘reintegration’ should bear in mind this particular fact, as for example, a meaningful and sustainable employment would be much more decisive for such combatants than social reintegration.

As part of the reintegration process, the stimulation of family and community structures would be highly important for effectiveness and sustainability. Considering local traditions and cultural values of Pashtun communities, for example, most ex-combatants are likely to be married with children. Although this would increase the urgency of economic means for reintegration, it would potentially be an opportunity for more successful reintegration outcomes. However, there are also those combatants who fought with the Mujahedin against the Soviets and then later with the Taliban. These people usually have over 20 years of fighting experience and are primarily in senior leadership positions. Some of these combatants might have carried out against their own or neighbouring communities and for them to go back ‘home’ can be a difficult challenge and with them, initiatives of social reintegration would be critical. For some of them, giving up their weapons would mean a direct threat to their well-being, as they are likely to face serious security threats. In other words, dealing with grievances between them and their communities needs to be part of their reintegration process.

It is also important to recognise that the majority of Taliban members come from a low educational background with poor literacy and numeracy skills, therefore the type of economic reintegration activities need to bear in mind such an important fact. They are likely to require extra support with building such basic skills while being trained on a particular vocation or assisted through an income generation project. It is necessary to have the programme capacities to provide proper outreach services to support them properly. There should also means of providing such mechanisms of microcredit for newly created businesses to benefit, as otherwise, they are likely to disappear in the first year of their initiation, leaving those ex-combatants without much option but returning to conflict as a means of livelihood. It is important that the provision of such vocational training and income generation activities are undertaken within a community framework and in this process, it is essential not creating a strong ‘ex-Taliban’ identity through solely combatant-centered programmes. This is clearly a matter of availability of resources, and here, what I am envisaging here is not a community-wide eco- nomic regeneration initiative. However, knowing what skills are needed in a specific context and what employment opportunities can be strengthened as a potential employment opportunity for former com- batants can be a good starting point to make plans for reintegration.

The APRP will be taking place in a context where there have been two previous reintegration experiences as first of all, the DDR of the Afghan Military Forces (AMF) with a caseload of over 60,000 combatants and secondly, the Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG). Both of these processes have been unsuccessful in meeting their primary objectives. With the first DDR process which was completed in 2005, the most successful aspect was probably the disarmament phase, though even that managed to collect only 36,571 small arms and 12,248 items of heavy weaponry, which was believed to be only the tip of the iceberg in a country like Afghanistan. The most prominent feature of the DDR of AMF was the way it was highly politicised during its planning and implementation. From the donors’ security priorities in the country to warlords’ greed for power and the post-conflict government’s political structures, all have played a significant role in the creation of less than satisfactory outcomes. Although the international community was acting as a third party and therefore supposed to be neutral, the reality was rather a different story. The various lead donors in the security sector reform process all had their own priorities, and unless the DDR process served their own particular interest, they did not demonstrate much constructive engagement with the process. The re-armament of various armed groups by the US for its war against terror is probably the best example of how the agendas of different lead donors conflicted with each other. On the one hand, the DDR advocated the disarmament of combatants and on the other hand, the re-armament of various factions was taking place at full speed.

The implementation process was badly affected by the involvement of 41 implementing partners with little coordination among them, and by the time programme delivery costs incurred what is left to provide for each combatant was not really meaningful such as trying to initiate a new business in the capital city, Kabul with a budget of less US $ 1,000. As well as high implementation cost, there was hardly any national ownership of the process, and the entire approach was based on the principle of the one-man-one weapon in designing reintegration opportunities. Overall, it was a slow implementation because of the political obstacles faced in the process, and did not really make linkages with contextual factors such as why poppy cultivation is the main source of income for most combatants or how culture of violence is perpetuated through generations in all segments of the society.

Some of these lessons were reflected in the design of DIAG as it was a community-based approach and aimed to use coercion as a means of ‘convincing’ armed groups to disarm. However, it was based on a major conceptual flaw and that was the arbitrary separation of armed groups in Afghanistan as legal and illegal. It was difficult to explain why most groups within the DDR of AMF were considered as ‘legal’ while the majority of them had carried out terrible atrocities against civilian communities. The DIAG policy did not go far in Afghanistan, and in fact, some people I interviewed in November this year, considered the new APRP initiative as a resurrection of DIAG but this time, it has a much clearer focus in terms of its target caseload and more importantly a lot more to spend for its successful implementation.

Nevertheless, it needs to be noted that generous international donor commitment for the proposed DDR cannot guarantee a positive DDR process. It is important to recognise that the national ownership of the process is clearly the case with APRP under the leadership of Minister Stanekzai and the international community has been generous with its pledges of support for this programme. However, what would be remaining critical pertains to the reintegration opportunities that could be offered and how they would be implemented. I think what we need to remember is that reintegration of former combatants is not a science but an art, and the recognition of political economy of the reintegration challenge would be the best starting point. PR


* Alpaslan Özerdem is Professor of Peacebuilding at Coventry University.

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