The London Conference and the media chatter around it has put the subject of reintegration and negotiations with the Taliban firmly on the agenda. Although both issues had been repeatedly raised by Afghan government and international officials over the last few years, the media and wider public still seemed to be taken by surprise. A closer look at what was said and some of the implications.
The text in the conference communiqué is so vague that it takes a few sentences to realise that this is the part that deals with reaching out to the insurgency. It probably represents the lowest common denominator that the participants could agree on:
“13. In the context of a comprehensive, Afghan-led approach, Conference Participants reinforced the need for an effective and enduring framework to create and consolidate a stable and secure environment in which Afghan men and women of all backgrounds and perspectives can contribute to the reconstruction of their country. In this context, Conference Participants welcomed the plans of the Government of Afghanistan to offer an honourable place in society to those willing to renounce violence, participate in the free and open society and respect the principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution, cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and pursue their political goals peacefully.”
It then specifies what this practically will entail:
“14. Conference Participants welcomed:
– the Government of Afghanistan’s commitment to reinvigorate Afghan-led reintegration efforts by developing and implementing an effective, inclusive, transparent and sustainable national Peace and Reintegration Programme;
– plans to convene a Grand Peace Jirga before the Kabul Conference; and
– the international community’s commitment to establish a Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to finance the Afghan-led Peace and Reintegration Programme. Conference Participants welcomed pledges to the Trust Fund and encouraged all those who wish to support peace-building and stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan to contribute to this important initiative.”
In interviews surrounding the conference international officials and military kept emphasising how the programme would reach out to those who were fighting for money, as they had been emphasising for months. However, I am not aware of anybody who has been analysing the insurgency from up close or who has serious contacts in Taliban areas who believes that payments to foot soldiers or promises of projects to communities will address the root causes or reasons why these men pick up arms.
Interestingly it was Karzai who came up with a much more coherent description of what the programme needed to address in his recentinterview with Spiegel (31 January 2010):
“[A successful reconciliation program] must have two main components: Reintegration and reconciliation. The reintegration is for the thousands of Taliban soldiers and village boys in our country who have been driven out of their homes — either by fair means or by intimidation, by bad behavior on the part of NATO forces or by bad behavior from Afghan forces — and who do not stand ideologically against the Afghan people or the international community. They must be persuaded by all means to return. (…) Then there is the political structure of the Taliban, which has its own environment of relations with the rest of the world and the question of al-Qaida and the terrorist networks. Our neighbors and the international community will be involved in this. That’s going to take a lot more effort.”
This analysis of what drives the insurgency, focusing on grievance rather than economics, has been around for years. It was more or less formally adopted in 2006, when the Policy Action Group, a high-level crisis management group consisting of Afghan ministers and international representatives (both military and civilian), identified bad governance as one of the main factors contributing to the insurgency. Such bad governance is often very personal with government or security officials abusing their positions to marginalise, target and push out their rivals. It is this analysis that should inform the reintegration programme, even though it might be more attractive to choose what looks more manageable.
So it is good that Karzai is not repeating the simplified “ten dollar Taliban” narrative. But he will need to do a lot more, in particular with regard to what his friends and officials are allowed to get away with. And with the internationals seemingly intent on focusing on the wrong end of the stick (or should I say carrot), we may be pouring a lot of money and energy into something that will not work – yet again. This would be an incredible shame, because there are real opportunities, both for reintegration and reconciliation, and because every botched opportunity harms the prospects of success once you do finally get it right. So what are some of the concerns?
The focus on economic incentives distracts from what should essentially be a political and a negotiation process, even on the lower level. Trying to out-pay insurgents or to win the sympathy of communities through projects ignores the reasons why people fight. It also disregards the fact that even if part of the insurgency is motivated by money, you are not dealing with a finite number of fighters (so paying, say, a hundred men to go home will not prevent others from signing up). There is moreover a real risk that the programme will not even do what it claims that it will do: provide livelihoods and income.
So far we have not been able to create jobs in any consistent or substantial way anywhere, despite all the economic development and poverty reduction and income generation and alternative livelihood programmes. It’s not that we haven’t tried before. So just wishing or deciding that it will be different this time will not be enough.
Moreover, all indications are that the funding and implementation mechanisms will follow the earlier model of Afghanistan’s New Beginnings Programme (ANBP), the UNDP body which oversaw the country’s disarmament and reintegration programmes (DDR and DIAG). The provided reintegration trainings at the time were sub-standard, while the idea of providing communities with projects if their commanders handed in their weapons never really expedited the level of disarmament or demobilisation (although a large number of 5-member “armed groups” – five members was the required minimum – did sign up for “demobilisation”). It is worrying that we may be looking at a repeat of what didn’t work the first time it was tried.
But despite all the talk of trust funds and projects to communities, in the end the core of the programme will probably be done through discretionary funds, whether managed by US military commanders, local governors or the President himself. And although it is impossible to do this kind of outreach without such funds, the problems are going to be considerable here as well, as was apparent during all the discussions surrounding the governor’s operational funds – and the risks of abuse – in 2006 and 2007.
And there is another, more fundamental concern and that is the agenda of those in charge of the reintegration and reconciliation efforts: the Afghan government and, let’s face it, the international military.
The Afghan government is a party to the current conflict. It is not a coherent or unified body and the behaviour of large parts of the government is directly fuelling the insurgency. Karzai himself is, particularly in the south, seen as tribally biased (having allowed abuse of power by the Popalzai and the Zeerak branch of the Durrani) and he does have a hard time reigning in his friends. So leaders and commanders on the other side will be watching closely to see whether the offers of return and the distribution of incentives are for all or only for those who have connections to the current administration.
The main international military agenda is to create conditions that will allow a draw-down of troops. This does not necessarily imply peace or reconciliation. Reintegration efforts are likely to be linked to programmes involving local militias (because despite all the careful language surrounding CDI, all indications are that we are going to see country-wide recruitment of local forces) which will lead to de facto power sharing and shifts in the power balance at the local level. This is likely to become another gathering of armed thugs – some of them former Taliban and some of them not – who as long as they do not attack the international military or the symbols of central government will be left alone to act as they please. Those without access to the programme will continue to be hunted down. Despite the need for realism and modest ambitions, I don’t think this is what we should be aspiring to.
On the higher level similar concerns exist. Although there seems to be a broad consensus among Afghans that the current conflict can only be solved politically and that this includes discussions with the insurgents, there is an increasing nervousness in particular among urban Afghans, women’s activists, civil society and ethnic minorities. I am not sure they fear the Taliban as such; in a well-negotiated deal they may have little to fear from them – at least not more than from some of the other commanders and clerics that are currently in the government. I think they fear the negotiators; they fear that their interests and their rights will be sold cheaply or will not feature at all.
So it is time, also for the internationals, to stop talking about what is not central to the issue. This is not about boys fighting for money. This is not about projects for communities. This is a political process. It could use a good mediator. And it could use some more clarity about what is on the table and what is not.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020