By Mark Sedra (in Waterloo, Canada)
Perhaps the most significant news to come out of the London Conference on Afghanistan held on January 28th was the announcement by President Karzai that the Afghan Government, with donor funding, was establishing a reintegration program for Taliban members willing to renounce violence. It was part of a number of moves, including the de-listing of five former Taliban members from the UN’s terrorist blacklist, intended to lure the Taliban leadership to the bargaining table. This is not completely new ground for the Afghan government, which established by Presidential decree in May 2005 a National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to drive so-called moderate Taliban away from the movement in exchange for some limited incentives. The program largely failed due to a meager budget, which prevented it from offering credible incentives (not more than bus fare in some cases), and inadequate vetting and monitoring systems to prevent Taliban imposters from benefiting from the program. According to some observers, the majority of the beneficiaries of the program were common criminals rather than Taliban fighters. While funding won’t be a problem for this new reintegration scheme with the international community agreeing to the establishment of a $500 million trust fund – approximately $140 million has already been committed to it – preventing fraud will pose a challenge. The reality is that the Taliban don’t carry ID cards, and conducting background checks on up to 10,000 potential beneficiaries will strain the intelligence gathering capacity of the Afghan government. Nonetheless, the very fact that the donor community has bought into this latest plan, unlike earlier schemes, bodes well for the program’s future.
While there is an emerging consensus among key stakeholders and observers that the reintegration program is a positive step, it has received mixed reviews in the Western press and public opinion. In one interview I gave to one of the main Canadian TV networks on the subject, I was asked whether it was “a good idea to give cash pay-outs to terrorists”? This statement typifies existing misperceptions about the proposed program. While the program’s finer details have yet to be released, and the proof will most certainly be in the fine print, two key points have to be clarified:
- The program will not offer cash payouts to Taliban members. Rather it will provide assistance for those who renounce violence to reintegrate into the civilian economy. This can include vocational training, job placement, micro-credit, or agricultural packages in the form of tools, seeds etc… This assistance is in line with the support provided to former Northern Alliance fighters between 2003 and 2006 under the auspices of the Afghan New Beginnings Programme, a UNDP-administered disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program that demobilized over 63,000 former combatants.
- The main focus of the program is not that hardcore, ideologically motivated Taliban with links to al-Qaeda and other global jihadi groups, but the lower level, ran-and-file members who fight for a daily wage (often exceeding that paid to the Afghan security forces) to support their families.
The program is a first step in a broader political process, based on the fundamental realization that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict. The hope is that by drying up the Taliban’s supply of occasional fighters and foot soldiers, while simultaneously exerting increased military pressure on it via the U.S. troop surge, you can compel the leadership (the Quetta Shura) to compromise, something it has been unwilling to consider due to the not unreasonable belief that it is winning. To achieve this broader goal of a political settlement President Karzai has requested the support of the Saudi King and Pakistani government, two powers that have historically exercised significant influence over the Taliban leadership.
Many Afghan civil society organizations, particularly women’s groups and human rights advocacy organizations, have (quite reasonably) expressed strong reservations over the prospect of any compromise with the Taliban, fearing a return to the draconian rule of the Taliban period. Here I think the government must be clear that any negotiation with the Taliban will have clear red lines, and those lines can be found the Afghan constitution, which provides strong protections for fundamental rights and freedoms.
The hurdles facing a Taliban reintegration scheme are significant, from problems with vetting and monitoring to security concerns. However, it is crucial for the establishment of a sustainable peace. Reintegration programs are a core element of peace-building processes in conflict-affected countries around the world from East Timor to Sierra Leone. Facilitating the return of combatants into civilian society is part of the wider process of reconciliation. While many citizens in NATO states may find the idea of providing incentives to enemies who may have killed or wounded their own distasteful, without such a gesture the war could continue indefinitely. Making the decision to sue for peace is often more difficult than opting to continue fighting due to deep feelings of grievance on all sides, but if the Afghan insurgency has taught us anything over the past eight years, it is the only route to stability.