Afghanistan Looks to Reintegrate Former Fighters

BY Larisa Epatko  January 28, 2010 at 5:35 PM EDT

Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Thursday at a donors conference in London a plan to reward Taliban members who agree to renounce violence with jobs and other help with reintegrating into society.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for the plan as long as it applied to low-level Taliban fighters who are not ideologically committed to the insurgency, according to The Washington Post.

Nations attending the conference pledged about $140 million for the reintegration program in its first year, Reuters reported.

Mariam Nawabi, president and CEO of AMDi International — a consulting firm that works on development and rule of law projects in Afghanistan, answered the following questions about efforts to engage the Taliban (edited for length):

Q: How will new efforts to reintegrate the Taliban succeed when others have failed in the past?

With the leadership of the Taliban, there have been ideological differences and not just economic realities. The leadership of the Taliban don’t want to lay down their arms because they view the presence of foreign troops to be an occupation. The statements they have made have been that when foreign troops begin to withdraw, they will lay down their weapons. Reintegration can work for low-level Taliban who are part of the insurgency because of economic reasons. However, if there are few jobs for them to sustain their families after the short term donor assistance runs out, I think they will likely return to such groups.

The source of financing for the Taliban is what must be addressed. It seems that they have the funds to continue their operations and the patience and will to continue fighting against U.S. and other troops. For such a program to be successful, NATO and U.S. troops would need to show a commitment to drawing down troops, but that is not something that I think they will likely do. I thus fear that the cycle of conflict will likely continue until the source of support for the Taliban leadership is cut off or high numbers of the lower level ranks in the Taliban are reintegrated through long-term plans.

President Karzai may now have more donor funds to provide for a reconciliation package to those Taliban who will lay down their guns and re-integrate into society and perhaps that will get the attention of some low-level Taliban. However, given that the recent presidential election was questioned by many, including the Taliban, they may not see the new Afghan government as legitimate and with problems of corruption, the Taliban may be recruiting new fighters while some are giving up. So, it is not just what can be offered in terms of financial rewards to get them to stop fighting, but also addressing the problems of corruption and rule of law that are plaguing the Afghan government itself.

Q: In what other ways should such a program be approached?

Now that eight years of fighting has passed and the U.S. and NATO are considering such talks and revamped programs, it seems to send the message to the Taliban that they have been successful in their fight. At the higher levels of Taliban leadership, there are ideological differences with the Afghan government that I don’t think can be resolved with financial means — they want foreign troops out and until they are there, they are unlikely to stop fighting and will continue recruiting young men who have been disenfranchised by the current system.
One of the root causes is poverty and lack of education — after eight years of waiting for basic jobs and with rising corruption and lack of rule of law, young men don’t have opportunities. If they feel that billions have been allocated to Afghanistan, they begin to resent the system and feel that other systems may be a better alternative and thus will be more susceptible to joining groups like the Taliban.

So, there are issues that need to be addressed by donors in how programs are being implemented and whether they are creating basic changes and jobs. In the end, with no jobs, people will turn to what can pay them to feed their families and if the Taliban have financial resources, they will have the tools needed to recruit more young men into their circle.

Q: What deeper issues need to be addressed?

I think that one must look at the root causes of conflict in Afghanistan which is poverty, lack of education and need for better rule of law. Where there is little justice, where there is a dismal outlook and lack of hope, where the tools to think critically have not been developed because the education opportunities were not provided, there is little incentive to live for this life. I think that there are Taliban who are Afghan and who are desperate and could be reintegrated into Afghan society, but with programs that are not just 1-2 months of support. They need counseling, they need to be provided with vocational training so that they can learn basic skills. They also need job opportunities that will give them support for them and their families.

We also need the international community to assist in ensuring that the Afghan government can improve its performance and corruption can be curbed. People need to feel that the government provides for their basic rights and not oppresses them and takes their resources. So, I think we have to think of ways that can address the root causes and not just fight the symptoms.

At the higher levels of Taliban leadership, I see ideological differences that I don’t think can be solved unless there are dramatic changes in approach by either side. Perhaps once troop withdrawals are put into place, negotiations could be more effective, but whether the Taliban leadership will agree with the Afghan constitution will still be an issue. So, training of the Afghan National Army and Police, setting benchmarks for reduction of corruption, and focusing on vocational training and job creation will be vital to providing for internal security.

Q: What are people in Afghanistan telling you about all of this?

The sense I get from people in Afghanistan is that they are tired of the conflict and they want peace and reconciliation with those who want to be part of the society. They want to make sure that those elements who allowed foreign fighters and terrorists to come on Afghan soil and use it as a base of attacks do not resume power.

I think it is also important to note that the Afghan people are not just focused on the Taliban, but on criminal elements and warlords who caused great harm to Afghan communities. They are still waiting for a transitional justice plan, which happened in countries like South Africa and East Timor, but which donors never supported for Afghanistan because the warlords were seen as an asset to fighting the Taliban.

I think we are seeing what the Afghan people have been telling us all along — that one cannot use one enemy against another for what is seen as a greater good. They want the Americans and NATO to support those who have been peaceful and who have not resorted to violence. They want to feel that the resources are reaching them, not those who have been fighting. So, they see things as we would here — they want freedom, justice, peace and opportunities for a better life.