Reintegration and Reconciliation in Afghanistan: In what order?

It remains a prominent hope of at least some of those managing the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan that a combination of reintegration and escalated fighting will create openings for the diplomacy that is essential to finally ending the war that, in the words of Prime Minister Harper,[i] will never be won.

In the current parlance of the Afghanistan conflict, reintegration is the war-time effort to persuade rank-and-file insurgents to quit fighting and lay down their arms in exchange for personal safety, immunity, and employment. Reconciliation is diplomacy that seeks to engage insurgency leaders in pursuit of a political settlement that will end the fighting.[ii] And, of course, many are hoping that the former can help to create favorable conditions for the latter.

The escalated fighting and the new reintegration plan are both pursued as war-fighting tactics – not so much to win the war as to set the insurgency back on its heels. A stalled insurgency, the reasoning goes, would create more favorable conditions for weaning fighters away from the insurgency and for inducing their leaders to seek negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners.

The reintegration of former combatants into society is an essential, and effective, post-conflict measure to stabilize a ceasefire and to consolidate peace, but as a war-time tactic to undermine a still vigorous insurgency it has few persuasive precedents. Extensive post-Cold War experience in demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration programs (DDR)[iii] offers few examples of war-time reintegration. Analysts point to “spontaneous demobilization” efforts in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, for example, which led to some defections from the insurgency (the Revolutionary United Front – RUF), but were well short of being a “game changer.”[iv] There are examples of war-time reintegration of former child soldiers, but as humanitarian efforts to rescue children, not as a tactics to weaken an adversary. The US carried out an extensive amnesty program in Vietnam that produced many Viet Cong defections but had little impact on the outcome of the war.[v]

Reintegration was, nevertheless, a key theme of the January 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan. There was acknowledgement that such efforts have failed to date, but one of the chief outcomes of the conference was an agreement to try again and try harder. American envoy Richard Holbrooke seemed to have his expectations well in check when he told reporters that the new plan “can’t be worse” than earlier efforts.[vi]The conference thus welcomed “the plans of the Government of Afghanistan to offer an honorable 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.” The international community also established a Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to finance the program and dramatically increased funding was promised.[vii]

Conversations in Kabul in the week preceding the conference did not elicit a lot of support for the view that rank-and-file insurgents are essentially mercenaries – fighting to earn a livelihood for their families, without really believing in the cause, and being amenable to switching sides if the price is right. Instead, the more prevailing view one heard from people anxious to see the insurgency ended, including academics and civil society representatives, was that while fighters are in many cases tiring of the fight, neither their own convictions nor the social pressures in their communities incline them toward switching sides and joining those still largely regarded as their “enemy.” It is a common testimony of Afghans that few of those now in the insurgency will be at ease on the sidelines of the war, turning away from the enormous personal and communal sacrifices already made to live as wards of the very government and international forces that their own community views with undiminished suspicion.

Amnesty programs are a legitimate feature of most armed conflicts and counterinsurgency campaigns. It is eminently laudable to give insurgents a genuine way of their circumstances. Nevertheless, experience suggests that Afghanistan will ultimately conform to the prevailing post-Cold War model for DDR in which reintegration follows reconciliation – that is, it follows a political process through which political leaders recognized as such by the insurgents, even if these are largely local rather than national leaders, agree to integrate with the prevailing order. Only then are rank and file fighters likely to lay down their arms in significant numbers. By design and by prevailing practice, DDR generally takes place after a ceasefire, not as a means of getting to a ceasefire.


[i] "We are not going to ever defeat the insurgency," Stephen Harper told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in an interview that aired March 1, 2009. "Afghanistan has probably had -- my reading of Afghanistan history -- it's probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind." Canada's Harper doubts Afghan insurgency can be defeated, CNN.Com, 1 March 2009.

[ii] Aunohita Mojumdar, “Afghanistan: Decoding Reintegration and Reconciliation,” Eurasia Insight, 9 February 2010.

[iii] “DDR is essentially a politically driven process, and its success depends on the will of the parties to the conflict to demilitarize after conflict. This political will is usually reflected in a commitment by these parties to disarm and demobilize military personnel in formal armed forces or other armed groups, within the framework of a ceasefire agreement or comprehensive peace accord.” Operational Guide to the IDDRS, the UN Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Resource Centre, pp 24-26.

[iv] Interview.

[v] Powerpoint: Colin Jackson and Austin Long, Political Science, MIT Selective Amnesty and Counter-insurgency: Malaya, Vietnam, and Iraq.

[vi] Sue Pleming, “US optimistic over new Taliban reintegration plan,” Reuters, 16 January 2010.

[vii] Communiqué of “Afghanistan: The London Conference,” 28 January 2010. Paragraph 13.

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