As talks continue to reach a peace agreement in Afghanistan, another set of discussions are simultaneously taking place in Kabul, Washington, D.C., and European capitals: What happens to the former fighters?
Once an agreement is signed, Afghanistan and its allies will urgently need to reintegrate an estimated 3.2 million refugees and internally displaced persons into the economic, social and political fabric of the country. Included in this number are the former Taliban who comprise only about 2 percent of the 3.2 million—or some 60,000 people—who need to be reintegrated. They represent an acute security threat and could become spoilers to future peace. This is ‘Afghanistan’s 2 percent challenge.’
I spent almost three years in Afghanistan starting in 2004, followed by eight years with the United Nations in New York through 2015, working on the reintegration of former fighters in Afghanistan. These initiatives were and continue to be framed under disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs, also known as DDR.
Now with Creative Associates International, I continue to look at DDR in Afghanistan and elsewhere so we may offer advice to policymakers about lessons learned, success stories and even missteps on the way to reintegration. Specifically related to Afghanistan, I compiled many of these into a new, short paper called The Reintegration of the Taliban into a Market-Based Economy in Afghanistan, which was released July 23, 2019, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Today, a number of U.S. government policy documents—including the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy and the U.S. State Department’s Integrated Country Strategy—outline a vision for Afghanistan. They are reinforced by the Stabilization Assistance Review that outlines the need to leverage defense and development in the service of diplomacy.
The common threads expressed in these and other policy documents are the need to enhance security for all Afghans, improve the government’s leadership of its development program and create a business-friendly environment, among others.
Lessons learned from past DDR efforts
During my time in Afghanistan, four DDR initiatives were championed and implemented: the Afghanistan New Beginnings Program; the Commander Incentive Program; the Disbandment of Illegally Armed Groups; and the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program.
While each effort had sub-par results, they have valuable lessons for upcoming efforts that could shape a reintegration framework for the Taliban under a much-desired peace agreement.
For example, each of these four programs contained essential socioeconomic livelihoods components. On reflection, however, we learned that these programs often over-emphasized the livelihoods elements of reintegration irrespective of other, complementary strategic reintegration objectives. This was oftentimes to the detriment of social and political reintegration needs. Incentives were offered almost solely to individual fighters irrespective of the perception by communities that these were not need- based. Scant attention was given to the link between reintegration, reconciliation and social cohesion with little regard for engaging in locally driven conflict mediation between other fighters’ groups and forces.
The Afghanistan New Beginning Program appropriately emphasized livelihood development and job creation, though did so in an economy dependent on foreign aid, not market forces. The Commander Incentive Program, at times, offered livelihood training options to wealthy, powerful and influential commanders who did not require traditional vocational and related training.
The Disbandment of Illegally Armed Groups efforts sought to provide reintegration benefits to communities who successfully compelled people to disarm and comply with the rule of law. Unfortunately, these communities did not have the authority needed to pressure the Taliban. The aim of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program was peace and the political reintegration of Taliban and anti-government elements; yet, it offered livelihood training to persons that would need to ‘defect’ from the Taliban. Without the security guarantees in place that accompany a post-conflict peace agreement, reintegratees found themselves at great personal risk of retribution. In both cases, the program goals were misaligned with other activities and objectives.
While economic growth is fundamental for sustainable reintegration, the U.S. government linkage of a peace agreement with Taliban reintegration and market-based economic growth runs a risk that this dynamic could repeat itself.
The way forward
What is needed then?
In one of my previous reports for Creative, Engaging Armed Groups & Former Fighters in Contemporary Conflict & Countering Violent Extremism Settings, I advanced reintegration as a complex political process with the SAR 3D approach of development, and defense in support of diplomacy being an appropriate tool to achieve a DDR policy outcome.
My new publication – The Reintegration of Taliban Fighters into a Market-Based Economy in Afghanistan – further articulates these issues and advocates for a blend of social, psychosocial, political and community-based reintegration initiatives for former Taliban fighters.
Advancing policy objectives that are mutually beneficial for the Taliban, United States and Afghanistan will require them to develop a clear definition of reintegration.
We should examine the possibility that previous DDRs may have resulted in a stigmatization of former fighters and find ways to overcome that. The most general lesson learned may be the application of the cliché: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Instead, a blended approach of what worked previously that considers the need for specialized packages for commanders and the inclusion of other armed groups may be the best way to ensure former fighters are transformed from spoilers into agent of a peace process.