Analysis: Taliban reconciliation is easier conceived than achieved
LONDON — Although Thursday’s conference on Afghanistan laid out a plan to bring up to 35,000 rank-and-file Taliban over to the side of the Afghan government, it remains to be seen how easily Kabul and NATO forces will be able to sway these fighters.
Homegrown insurgents who base their allegiance to the Taliban on Islamist ideology will be harder to persuade than the local man who is just trying to earn a living, analysts say.
But there also must be jobs for the converted and an Afghan government that can guarantee a paycheck in the long term while limiting the chances of bloody Taliban reprisals. And with President Barack Obama’s 2011 troop withdrawal deadline looming, Afghans may not see the point of changing sides as the Taliban waits out NATO forces.
Winter has brought no lull in fighting in the south this year, and NATO troops saw their highest casualty rates of the war in 2009. So there may not be much incentive for higher-level Taliban to come to the table at this point, said Robert Oakley, a former ambassador to Pakistan who is now a member of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Norfolk, Va.
“They think they’re winning,” Oakley said “Why should they give anything up?”
For many, the stakes are simply too high to change allegiances, according to Hardin Lang, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“You can always go to the Taliban and then be reconciled, but you can’t go the other way,” Lang said in October. “If you leave the Taliban and reconcile and then you start to lose, your head’s on the block.”
Oakley also said he isn’t sure how long any reintegration of low-level fighters would last.
“As long as we’re there, they’ll see the benefit,” he said. “They’ll have peace and money, but again, how long is it going to last?”
In Afghanistan, everything is about perception, and that affects wartime loyalties, said Thomas Barfield, an anthropology professor and head of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University.
“Right now, the Afghans think, ‘Maybe [NATO troops] will leave, maybe I shouldn’t commit myself,’” he said.
Any mass defections likely would not replicate the “Sons of Iraq” dynamic that saw Sunnis come under the payroll of U.S. forces in 2007 while aligning against al-Qaida.
Iraq is generally an educated, literate and urban society. Afghanistan suffers from rampant illiteracy — 65 percent of the male population, by some estimates — and is largely rural.
Previous efforts at Taliban reintegration have been piecemeal and with limited results, according to a report released this month by the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
A program known as the Program Tahkim-e-Solh was designed to win over former insurgents. Certificates were issued to individuals once they were processed, and some former Taliban were given land in Khost province.
But some reformed Taliban complained that they were not safe and that NATO forces did not recognize their rehabilitation, according to the report.
“As a result, trust was lost amongst those anti-government elements who were willing to be reconciled,” the report states.
Any success with the Afghan reintegration program will depend on the success of the planned surge of some 30,000 U.S. forces and additional NATO troops and the resulting offensives this spring, said Michael Codner, director of the military sciences department at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“We’re talking about late spring, if a tipping point is achieved, where the reconcilable Taliban decide this is in their interests and the interests of the communities that are supporting them,” Codner said.
Late last year in Logar province’s Baraki Barak district just south of Kabul — an area heralded by top brass as a success even as troops on the ground said otherwise — reintegration was a delicate dance and it proved hard to convince insurgents to join the government’s side.
Through a third party, insurgents would approach the district sub-governor and Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 71st U.S. Cavalry Regiment commander Capt. Paul Shepard about joining the government.
Near the end of the troops’ deployment in early December, not one insurgent had been reintegrated.
“We’re still trying to get them to the table, and it’s always an invitation,” Shepard said. “But it’s a constant battle to get that person to the table.”
Shepard’s plan in Baraki Barak was to offer converted Taliban farming or day labor jobs, something that would give them a stake in the burgeoning governmental order.
The myriad problems facing Afghanistan at the time of Thursday’s conference are largely interconnected. For a reintegration program to succeed there must be a strong government presence at the district, provincial and federal levels to support those who leave the Taliban.
But corruption and government ineptitude remain rife at all levels.
A U.N. report released this month found that Afghan police and local politicians are the figures most likely to seek bribes and kickbacks from citizens. It remains unclear how soon the Afghan government will be seen as a legitimate alternative to the shadowy, de-facto Taliban governance that metes out justice and dominates some areas of the south and east.
Oakley said a decade would be the ideal amount of time for NATO troops to bolster Afghan security forces, grow the government and allow reintegration programs to have some teeth.
But throughout Europe, Canada and the U.S., public support for this war is fading.
“In all the NATO countries including the United States, public opinion is turning against the war, and they’re all democracies,” Oakley said. “You can’t ignore that.”
At the end of Thursday's Afghanistan conference in London, where the reintegration program was introduced, British Foreign Minister David Miliband and his Afghan counterpart Rangin Dadfar Spanta heralded the initiative as an essential step forward to bring all Afghans into the country's new order.
The reintegration program will "offer an honourable 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," according to a communique issued at the end of the conference.
A "Grand Peace Jirga" is being planned for later this year that will bring the relevant Afghan players together to push forward reconciliation and reintegration, according to the communique.