Rise to Peace blog

Reintegration of Ex-Combatants in Afghanistan

Taliban reintegration into Afghan society is a precarious topic, thus it is prudent to devote weighty discussion towards barriers emboldened by corruption, terrorism, and political instability, as well as seek legitimate localized solutions.

Research conducted by Rise to Peace in regard to the Afghan situation strongly correlates with the educated opinions expressed by the panelists and the USIP. Reintegration is an important step for the creation of peace at the local level. Former fighters are presented with the opportunity to re-enter their communities and consequently build hope for a better life.

Afghanistan is plagued by the significant issues of corruption, terrorism, and political instability manifested in its upcoming election on September 28, 2019. Each of these matters must be highlighted and thoroughly discussed prior to the implementation of policies that seek to stabilize the Afghan situation. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) conducts such imperative analysis that must be considered by all with a keen eye towards Afghan affairs.

SIGAR recently released its report ‘Reintegration of Ex-Combatants: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan’ and subsequently held a panel discussion in conjunction with United States Institute for Peace. Esteemed panelists offered in-depth knowledge and understanding in regard to the current political impasse and security situation in Afghanistan. They included Kate Bateman (Project Lead for Reintegration, Lessons Learned Program, SIGAR); Erica Gaston (Non-Resident Fellow, Global Public Policy Institute); Timor Sharan (Deputy Minister for Policy and Technical Affairs, Independent Directorate of Local Governance); and Johnny Walsh (Senior Expert, Afghanistan, US Institute of Peace). Their insights generated astute discourse.

The ‘Reintegration of Ex-Combatants’ report offered such inclusive knowledge. SIGAR’s Inspector General John Sopko summarized that, “the goal of today’s report is to help U.S., Afghan, and other coalition policymakers and agencies as they prepare for the daunting task of assisting with the reintegration of an estimated 60,000 full-time Taliban fighters, as well as numerous other non-Taliban combatants, in the event that the Afghan government and the Taliban enter negotiations to reach a political settlement.”

One key point became apparent: No reintegration in the absence of a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban with the ongoing insurgencies in Afghanistan.

Rise to Peace strongly supports SIGAR’s conclusions. Further, the findings of the Office of the Special Inspector General align with Rise to Peace’s research focused on peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Programs implemented in the past, as well as those currently in place, have irrefutably failed for many reasons, primarily the lack of an intra-Afghan peace agreement. Security threats faced by communities and those fighters who lay down their arms follow as a secondary impediment to a peaceful solution. Lastly, substantial economic barriers due to a weak Afghan economy also contribute to the failure of other reintegration initiatives.

It is fair to summarize that corruption, terrorism, and political instability — especially during an active election campaign — remain in a nexus that feeds one off the other in such an environment.

Nonetheless, failure does not mean an end, but rather, an opportunity to create a tailored solution from lessons learned. SIGAR’s report provides a series of recommendations to the US Congress and the Afghan government, that could ideally achieve a successful reintegration program if implemented.

What’s Next for the SIGAR Report?

Findings in the report provide a foundation for further action to be taken in the case that political will permits it. For example, Rise to Peace founder and president Ahmad Mohibi asked, “Where are you taking all the lessons learned? What’s next? Will be there possible action that will drive into policy? We have seen the great work SIGAR has done, so what should be done?” In response, Mr. Sopko replied:

 We try to get Congress to focus on this issue and we have been successful. SIGAR pushes for action since it continues to hold the attention of Congress, however, the Office understands that other agencies must adopt best practices for implementation in the future. Simply put, the United States government must amend its policies towards Afghanistan to demonstrate the collective lessons learned since its involvement in the country.

Some solutions remain complex and difficult. SIGAR suggests that a transitional program to reintegrate militants into a society free of fighting is a definite need in Afghanistan. Such an endeavor would foment the development of mutual connections within communities and decrease instances of regional violence. Continued support for the Afghan government is considered vital to this process as well. Nonetheless, SIGAR’s reporting advises that reintegration projects may be futile at the current time because of the lack of a peace plan and a ceasefire. It is especially difficult to pursue reintegration of fighters when the Taliban and Afghan forces remain engaged in an active conflict.

Therefore, the lack of an infra-Afghan peace agreement with the Taliban complicates any resolutions going forward. It is reasoned that the US Congress may not fund Department of Defense, State Department, and USAID programs because neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban cannot guarantee security, especially for those militant fighters seeking reintegration into civilian society. Policy decisions have real and actual repercussions on the ground.

Any attempt of reintegration in the current political environment may jeopardize any chances for peace talks as the Taliban considers such counterinsurgency initiatives to weaken their forces. Additionally, the lives of former fighters are at risk in areas controlled or contested by the Taliban. There are no guarantees that militants who choose to no longer fight will escape with their lives. For instance, most would meet an end like Zabet Khan; a Taliban commander who changed the direction of his life chose not to fight and made decisions to take care of his family. He migrated to Greece where he earned a living working on a farm until he returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban killed him and left his four children without a father.

SIGAR suggests that the United States should not support any sort of comprehensive reintegration program as long as the Taliban insurgency continues. In the current situation, it is much too difficult to vet, protect and track former fighters. It is subsequently difficult to conclude who remains an active Taliban fighter versus one who seeks a peaceful existence; therefore, it creates an identifiable security risk.

Kate Bateman of SIGAR expressed that it can be difficult to trust someone who claims to be wanting to leave the Taliban when asking for assistance. Based-off her experience and research, Bateman recommends that the Department of Defense and USAID designate a permanent office handling reintegration. As it currently stands, the US has not provided the required leadership and funding to establish such a position.

The Deputy Minister for Policy and Program at Independent Directorate Local Governance, Timor Sharan, expressed that a more localized approach is appropriate to facilitate the reintegration of former Taliban fighters into Afghan society. He elaborated upon the importance of honor in Afghan societal norms and that these ex-fighters must be treated with kindness during their reintegration back into their communities. Their decision to leave the Taliban must be respected by local populations too.

Disrespect between Afghans and the Taliban complicates the social dynamics within Afghanistan as well. It fomented a sense of distrust between the two groupings and this must be resolved before any semblance of peace can be achieved. Active interactions between the two, such as in the settings of town halls and local elections, are required to initiate dialogue as well as a sense of identity.

Afghanistan’s Senior Expert at the US Institute of Peace, Johnny Walsh reflected upon the setbacks that stalled peace talks over the last 18 years. “The United States would often revert back to the tactic of attempting to split or weaken the Taliban. History demonstrates that this approach has been applied many times and it simply does not work.” Walsh acknowledged the most recent setback related to President Donald Trump ending the peace talks and hoped that it would not result in the resumption of military activities to weaken the group, as it will undoubtedly fail. Further, Walsh — along with the rest of the panelists — agreed that post-conflict integration of Taliban fighters into their respective communities was a significant need.

In the case that the United States fails to support this agenda, the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) would benefit. Former fighters would be left without any peaceful options if they are denied a place of employment and acceptance into regular Afghan society.

Nevertheless, reintegration remains an undertaking encumbered by its fair share of problems. The Afghan economy is a significant barrier to the fulfillment of dramatic life changes, especially those associated with the stigma of being a former militant. Economic opportunities remain bleak and the Afghan fiscal situation is often unpredictable. Unemployment remains a substantial impediment to community growth.

A lack of financial support and scrutiny from local communities mean that radicalization presents the easiest path to a purpose. This is an extremely problematic condition in Afghanistan.

The World Bank states that “a quarter of the labor force is unemployed, and 80 percent of employment is vulnerable and insecure, comprising self- or own account employment, day labor, or unpaid work.” Therefore, these factors present a situation in which former Taliban fighters will be unemployed and face difficulties in hiring due to their history. A lack of financial support and scrutiny from local communities mean that radicalization presents the easiest path to a purpose. This is an extremely problematic condition in Afghanistan.

As a result, corruption and terrorism are intrinsically linked. The lack of legitimate opportunities results in a situation where those at risk are often consumed by both. This is a challenge when reintegration projects are considered. Since it is difficult to determine the true intentions of a ‘reformed fighter’, such an individual could easily reap financial benefits or resources meant for those turning away from violence and redirect them towards terrorist activities. Therefore, Rise to Peace especially promotes evaluation of all resources aimed towards such programs, to ensure they are utilized legitimately.

The Rise to Peace Mentorship and Capacity Building Program

Rise to Peace focuses its research not only on integration measures for former Taliban but also for development and economic opportunities. The Rise to Peace Mentorship and Capacity Building Program is used to help support those who are fleeing violence and to establish themselves in a safe and secure environment. Another aspect of the program empowers women and youth through connections with local elders and important stakeholders.

Former fighters need not feel marginalized, but rather sense that they are an active member in society for the greater good of their village or city.

Safety and security is not just about physical violence, but also to feel safe and secure economically. A distinct lack of higher education, such as college graduates, hinders economic prospects in Afghanistan, therefore economic diversification must focus on an already entrenched system of capital accumulation.

In this distinct case, main sources of employment remain in agriculture and small-scale production. Entrepreneurship offers an additional pathway to financial independence. Development programs, such as USAID, need have a localized focus on the systems already in place, instead of suggestions of industries that have a little foothold in the country.

When these former Taliban fighters have a sense of purpose, such as opening a market stand in town, a sense of purpose to continue their lives peacefully because they are able to take care of themselves and their family

When these former Taliban fighters have a sense of purpose, such as opening a market stand in town, a sense of purpose to continue their lives peacefully because they are able to take care of themselves and their family. A fruitful economy is not the only conduit for reintegration, but an extension of peace, acceptance, and understanding within local communities is required also. Former fighters need not feel marginalized, but rather sense that they are an active member of the society for the greater good of their village or city.

Those actively involved in working towards peace in Afghanistan must listen to what Afghans need rather than decide what would be beneficial for them.

A focus on localized solutions is imperative too. Rise to Peace often mentions its adherence to community building and resiliency principles. Solutions must have local origins instead of those created by foreign governments or organizations. Those actively involved in working towards peace in Afghanistan must listen to what Afghans need rather than decide what would be beneficial for them. Western countries often mistakenly apply their views on state-building in societies that vastly differ from their socio-political situations.

Afghans that are connected to their villages and local societies can express what resources, educational sessions and infrastructure are required in their regional settings. For instance, those exposed to radicalization rhetoric can advise which educational tools, by way of training sessions and workshops, are most effective in countering recruitment. As well, strategies that stimulate government support can be tailored to regional groups, often distinctive in their ethnicity. Afghans hold the most in-depth knowledge that can only be accumulated through the first-hand experience.

It is prudent to establish a framework and facilities for deradicalization in regions that are not under Taliban control or their influence is negligible.

A localized approach is relevant to the discussions surrounding reintegration of former militants too. While it is a beneficial proposition to hold off on vast integration policies while the Taliban remain in conflict with the Afghan government, the situation is not the same across Afghanistan. It is prudent to establish a framework and facilities for deradicalization in regions that are not under Taliban control or their influence is negligible.

An opportunity to turn away from that lifestyle, especially in a region where the Taliban would be limited to target them for retribution, remains just as important compared to those in areas with high terrorist activity. However, if training and reintegration prospects are bleak, a former fighter might question his decision or deem it unreachable.

Lastly, if Afghans hope to achieve peace and build a cohesive society, they must take responsibility for their own country. It is prudent for them to embrace an active role in shaping the future of their homeland and voting remains an important factor. Citizens are more apt to vote when they consider their government to be legitimate and not installed by a foreign power, therefore free and fair elections are vital in Afghanistan. The ability to select their own president and representatives creates a sense of belief in their system of governance. It is for this reason that the elections on September 28 are important, especially under the current political context.

Rise to Peace reached these conclusions after significant research devoted to Afghanistan and with the respected observations of those with first-hand experience. Our non-profit organization is capable of engagement in all aspects of community building and resiliency projects that will certainly benefit Afghans at the local level through the achievement of peace in multi-faceted ways.

Ahmad Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

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