KABUL—As 2019 was about close, many people in the capital were talking about two things: The country’s presidential elections and the renewed talks between the United States and the Taliban.
Fascinating as presidential elections may be (with preliminary results announced Dec. 21), my interest was focused on the U.S.–Taliban talks. As an expert in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) and not connected with the talks in any fashion, I wanted to hear from Afghan officials, observers and businesses about two key questions.
First, how do they view the U.S.-Taliban talks? If I could select one word to describe the mood, it would be “cautious.” I had hoped for “optimistic,” but “cautious” is better than “pessimistic.”
As anyone could imagine, Afghans are eager for the war to end. However, talks have started before without success and the war continues. After more than 18 years of war, “cautious” is the best we could expect.
My second—and most important question—is how Afghanistan could reintegrate former combatants into society in a way that ensures they don’t resort to violence to achieve political aims or illicit activities to secure livelihoods? Taken together, this describes the elusive “sustainable reintegration.”
This is a critical question for policymakers and Afghans alike. If a U.S.-Taliban deal results in a long-term ceasefire and a reduction in forces on both sides (especially a peace settlement), it necessarily means that approximately 60,000 Taliban insurgents would need to be reintegrated into Afghan society. Concurrently, former fighter, returnee and internally displaced person reintegration has been explored independent of a peace settlement, as well as reintegration as a catalyst to peace.
For more than two decades, I have spent a considerable (and extended) time in Afghanistan and elsewhere designing, evaluating and implementing DDR programs. I have found that whether it is Afghanistan, Colombia or Sierra Leone, the reintegration part of the equation is the most important and complex part of any DDR initiative.
Since the beginning of December, Creative has championed a series of gatherings that have explored how reintegration might occur in Afghanistan.
In Kabul and Herat, for example, Creative’s senior leadership met with high-level government officials, the private sector, peacebuilders, women’s organizations and researchers to gain a better understanding of what reintegration efforts may look like should an agreement with the Taliban materialize. It also organized a series of conclaves with seven in-country organizations to take a deeper dive into this and other subjects.
These events—along with private meetings I had with senior officials—affirmed my belief that reintegration is central to peace and stability and that the sub-par performance of previous DDR efforts should not preclude using its tools and lessons to address settings where armed actors and groups are active, rather than applying it as a linear, loaded term.
Different approaches to reintegration
Setting aside for a moment the fact that the international community has never come up with a common definition of “reintegration,” in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the word means different things to different stakeholders. How it should be implemented is just as fuzzy, yet not out of the reach of experts. Analysis should simply supplant cookie cutter approaches, a key objective of Creative’s gathering of experts!
For example, a High Peace Council representative I spoke with feels that a full agreement is required before reintegration may occur. This view is a common among people in U.S. government, and some experts in think tanks and academic circles.
In this logical, linear approach: First, an agreement is reached. Next, combatants are disarmed. Third, their military like structure is disassembled. Finally, they are reintegrated into society, yet this is the same approach that led to previous failures, contributing to a stigma around DDR.
Sure, there is a time and place for this approach, though this is “political reintegration” – a specific element of reintegration. It discounts livelihoods and market-based job creation as a source of sustainable reintegration and is largely exclusionary, not considering returnees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) or communities in general.
This view of a linear DDR as contingent on a peace settlement has another negative knock-off effect: overemphasis on disarmament. The operational aspect of “disarmament” is a misunderstood term in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Disarmament has never been about the total surrender of all weapons, particularly small arms and light weapons. This is clear if one reads the definition of “disarmament,” which is more about weapons management and responsible use—and an elimination of large weapons and explosives.
My larger point here is that disarmament as traditionally understood is an anachronism at best and should not be used to hold the reintegration process hostage to addressing and treating armed groups and actors.
An alternative view is based on reality: Though a peace agreement is a preferred precursor, it is not necessarily a required condition. Unlike efforts prior to a decade ago, DDR occurs during a conflict and it will most likely continue this way. It is no longer a post–conflict endeavor.
Local and sub-national peace initiatives can be catalytic and amplify aspects of DDR. Also, DDR practitioners can provide input to larger peace processes. The point here is to walk away from old notions and linear thinking.
Today, many peacebuilders largely see reintegration through a programmatic lens in which communities and former combatants work side-by-side to enhance social cohesion and secure livelihoods.
In this scenario, several groups— including former fighters, refugees and IDPs—undergo reintegration. In this situation, the focus is on community-based reintegration approaches.
Many parts of the UN system share this collective identity with the peacebuilding community. The definitions of reintegration become diffuse when cast through a programmatic lens. Securing a livelihood is comingled with securing the human and legal rights of the reintegrated person. Political objectives mix with operational imperatives and programmatic responses. Security and stabilization become intertwined with a pressing need for recovery and economic development if reintegration dividends are to be secured.
The DDR ‘toolbox’ continues to offer the best options for addressing armed groups and actors, and what is needed is increased expertise and analysis.
Dean Piedmont is a Senior Advisor for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration and Security Sector Reform at Creative Associates International. He supports strategic business development, drives thought leadership around DDR and SSR in violent extremism and insurgency settings and provides technical guidance to programs.