By Richard Scarth (in Duabi)

Anyone living and working in Afghanistan, even for a short time, is likely to witness history repeating itself.  Whether it is journalists re-embedding to cover another significant battle in the south, reporting the surreal oddities found in what is now the “Obama bazaar,” covering another search for the elusive reclining Buddha of Bamiyan or describing another successful Donors Conference while clearly unaware of the previous year’s milestones, history seems to repeat itself far too quickly in the transient world of Aid. 

The latest re-initiative is the revival and rebranding of the original Japanese-led, UN-operated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program to focus on re-integrating an estimated 36,000 low-level Taliban fighters. The initiative is to be commended. What is tragic is that the original DDR initiative was cut short and the follow-on Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) program in 2005 has failed to deliver.  So why do more of the same with the same people at the helm?

There is no need to re-invent the well-done components of DDR, but please let us not repeat the mistakes! The program should identify and adopt the lessons learned from the first DDR experiment including, for instance, significant private sector engagement to ensure reintegrated combatants can access sustainable employment. Providing people with employment is the answer; but if it is as easy as that, the new implementers must ask themselves why was it not done seven years ago? One reason is that there is no quick fix. With unemployment estimated at 35-40 percent, every current job creation initiative combined would still take many years to significantly reduce this statistic.

In 2003, the United Nations Development Programme established the “Afghan New Beginnings Program” (ANBP). It was funded with an array of international donor contributions totaling US$142 million – a mere 7 percent of the recently-quoted cost of the new five-year initiative. The DDR program's objectives were to: (1) Provide the former armed personnel with an alternative means of gainful employment; (2) Break the dependency and or links between the rank and file soldiers and their commanders; and (3) Disarm them.

The program concluded in 2005, with 63,000 men (and a few women) having “disarmed,” 53,000 of which received “reintegration” assistance.  Reintegration packages ranged from chicken farming to carpentry and tailoring, teaching, small business options and joining the police and army.

Reflecting back, it is clear that the ANBP’s success was two-fold. First, the significant threat perceived to the Presidential election in 2004 and the potential for regional uprisings by organized armed men never materialized. Secondly, considerable communication, good will and social networks emerged as a result of the ANBP initiative that provided a mechanism enabling organizations to track former combatants and monitor them.

Still, the ANBP model should hardly be defined as stellar; its many shortcomings should not be repeated. As a new program is being discussed, the fundamental objective must be the creation of viable employment in the private and public sectors. The following are some lessons learned from the ANBP: 

1. The objectives must be fully defined before commencement. In 2003, too much emphasis was given to disarmament. This resulted in insufficient emphasis, time and funding given to reintegration. UNDP claimed full employment for those in the program but at the same time over 5,000 verified “clients” were in fact registered in six low-key “Beyond the R” USAID-funded DDR job centres. This experience demonstrates that having third parties involved at the board level (in what would otherwise be a self congratulating Old Boys Club) is a necessity to ensure some sense of reality in program evaluation.

2. Implementation relied on a regional network of NGOs and success varied according to the location, organization and the individuals. A standard syllabus, consistent training packages, mystery shoppers policing the product, competition to weed out the weak implementers and meaningful reviews and bonuses for those staff that stayed the course would encourage higher standards.

3. Expect the unexpected and have funded contingencies agreed to before the program starts.  In 2003, at the first disarmament “event,” commanders arrived and unexpectedly also wanted to hand in tanks and significant ammunition. International experts only expected to receive small arms! The enthusiasm for disarmament necessitated the implementation of two unexpected new programs which both required further donor funding.  Unfortunately, as the DDR program developed, donor funding became increasingly slow to arrive and program implementers had to use their own funds to keep the initiatives operational. In 2005 the unexpected escalation in insecurity across the south meant that program implementers were not permitted to go to areas now deemed too dangerous. As a result, many clients never met any implementers once they disarmed.

4. Do not be naïve – build in provisions for huge demand in a country where every unemployed person will happily offer to reconcile and sign on. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had more than 100,000 Afghan Militia Forces (AMF) personnel on its payroll in 2003, but when the time came for disarmament by the Afghanistan’s New Beginnings Program (ANBP) only 63,000 were ultimately formally disarmed. Questions remained: How many were really AMF? Who profited from the “Ghost Soldiers”? Did the Western diplomats’ decision to ignore the fraud alienate the Afghans? It is essential that clear provable criteria are defined to clarify who the program will assist and how the local population should be incorporated in order to avoid local resentment on the part of many who will see the “bad guys” being rewarded.

5. A tragic lesson learned from DDR is the misconception that short-term training should be counted as reintegration. Donors treated this training as actual employment, despite the fact that even in cases where DDR participants were paid to receive six months’ training, large numbers were trained in skills where no demand really existed.  One participant could be one of fifty mates all trained in the same skill where the subsequent odds of full time paid or self employment were virtually nil.

There were success stories, but a recently-trained carpenter would also need access to micro finance to buy materials in bulk and mentoring to learn additional skills to win contracts.  USAID’s “Beyond the R” developed such initiatives by providing affordable  micro finance, micro contracting initiatives and mobile mentors to check standards and give guidance over the first year but it was hard work trying to find donors willing to be practically supportive.  

6. Know your counterpart. An Afghan will never lose his pride, despite all hardships.  Reintegration must be developed to provide different options for all levels of management.  The ANBP failed to differentiate between the ranks of the soldiers, the senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the officers and the commanders.  A subsequent Commanders’ Incentive Program appeased those at the top but the long-term benefits were questionable. It is reported that 900 leaders will be targeted in the new program. In 2003, the former middle management of the AMF was forgotten and the Russian-trained professional soldiers felt bitter.  The educated NCOs were being offered the same options as the uneducated men that they once commanded.  

7. Ensure appropriate expertise. A combination of international and national experts should be supported. These individuals must be qualified and proven experts in their field. They should be motivated by more than just the money and willing to stay until they can be judged by their results.  Mission chasers, the unemployable or the lost soul finding himself will neither add value to the new program nor inspire their Afghan colleagues.  In the current economic downturn, the opportunity to attract new blood to what has been traditionally a public sector environment will add value to any new initiative and change the focus towards the private sector.

8. Long-term commitment. A re-invigorated DDR program must support outcomes that are sustainable. According to the US government, “Job creation is critical to undermining the extremists' appeal in the short-term and for sustainable economic growth in the long-term.” If not designed correctly, the DDR program will again prematurely close down as donors leave Afghanistan.

A strategically-planned program must look to have Afghans running it by year two and become formally integrated into a Ministry that will continue to provide assistance to those that it is setting out to assist far beyond the quoted five-year period.  The length of program should be defined by the time it takes to achieve the goals. Some clients will need a little more “tender loving care” to ensure that they are successfully reconciled. Failure to reconcile will only mean that they will reoffend if root causes are not addressed. 

At least for the next decade, there is a need for a program – whether it is called DDR or “Taliban Reconciliation” – that focuses on unemployed young Afghan men who have no employment prospects, the group most vulnerable to being hired for illegal activities. This program should continue until the Afghan private sector is developed to a level that provides near-full employment.  Parallel programs and initiatives are needed that will pump up the private sector.  Afghanistan’s situation is no different from Western countries that have needed economic stimulus packages. Imagine how Afghanistan would benefit if it was given a US$30 billion fund aimed at small business development. The Obama administration thinks the economic stimulus will work in the US – why does the same government think the roots of Afghanistan's problems are any different?


Richard Scarth was the USAID in-country DDR expert in Kabul from 2004 – 2006 and devised and ran a parallel pilot programme to the ANBP called “beyond the R” to provide targeted PR and real employment for the former AMF.  More information is available at and in the book “Beyond Settlement”. Richard is also a UK Chartered specialist Development Surveyor and a partner in Property Consulting - Afghanistan currently based in Dubai. Richard is currently raising funding through donors and the private sector to build industrial parks and business centres in Afghanistan.  

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