A US-Afghan plan to buy off militants may be failing
By TIM CRAIG AND MOHAMMAD SHARIF | The Washington Post | Published: May 17, 2016
JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Faridoon Hanafi says he probably killed American soldiers as a Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan from 2009 through 2014. And he's certainly killed some Afghan troops.
But since then, Hanafi has joined a rare demographic here: reformed, de-radicalized Islamist militants.
After he handed over his assault rifles and grenade launchers to intelligence agents, Hanafi settled into a safe house and started collecting $200 a month. In return for those payments, funded with foreign aid, Hanafi worked with local officials in Nangahar province to try to lure other militants away from the fight.
Now, the money is drying up and a central goal of the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Afghanistan -- that Islamist militants can be rehabilitated or paid to reintegrate into the law-abiding public -- is at a crossroads as the war drags into its 15th year.
"If the government stops paying, these people will find another way to get money, and negotiations will fail," Hanafi said in an interview.
Two months ago, after the United States and other countries had invested about $200 million in the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, the six-year effort was effectively suspended while officials reassess its goals.
The suspension comes amid broader scrutiny here and in Washington of de-radicalization efforts as the Taliban leadership shuns peace talks and parts of Afghanistan drift even deeper into the grip of extremist ideology.
"The society and symptom is just too big, and the medicine that is provided is just too little," said Ali Mohammad Ali, an Afghan security analyst and researcher.
The program, carried out by an Afghan council set up to push for peace talks, included payments to former militants, the hiring of hundreds of local mediators, and tens of millions of dollars for public services in militant strongholds.
But just 11,077 militants have entered into the program, and officials of what is called the High Peace Council can't be sure how many have remained loyal to the government. In a country awash in weapons, only 9,800 have been handed over. Auditors have also struggled to track how the public-works money, including $50 million from the United States, has been spent.
"One important premise that underpinned the overall strategy was that peace was imminent," said Douglas Keh, country director for the U.N. Development Program, which oversees the effort. "At the time, the international community had its reason to be guided by this assumption, but what was hoped for did not come about."
As officials reevaluate the program this summer, they have stopped payments to the mediators who formed the backbone of its operations. The High Peace Council is still technically operational - the United States rushed in $5 million to pay administrators - but payments to former Taliban fighters have been suspended, said Farhadullah Farhad, deputy chief executive of the peace council.
"We are assessing our past to redesign our future," Farhad said.
Yet Hanafi argues that the program can point to some success. He said he joined the insurgency as a teenager around 2008 after hearing reports of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes. He met a cleric who told him that "jihad was an obligation" because "villagers were suffering."
Within weeks, Hanafi was leading a group of Taliban fighters in Wardak province, "ambushing" American troops who were struggling to fortify bases in the area. He recalls hiding in a bush in neighboring Logar province while directing another militant who had just set five roadside bombs.
"An [Afghan intelligence] vehicle came and stopped right on a bomb, and the guy asked what he should do.
"I said, 'Let him go.'
"Then an [Afghan] army vehicle came, and he asked again.
"I told him to let him go.
"Then a big American vehicle came, and I said, 'Do it, it's time.' "
The blast "destroyed" the vehicle, Hanafi said, and intensified coalition military operations in the area. He moved to the eastern province of Nangahar, but over time, he said, he became unnerved by the gruesome insurgency. He was shaken by the sight of militants dragging the body of an Afghan soldier behind a pickup truck.
He began second-guessing whether he really needed to die on the battlefield or as a suicide bomber to be a good Muslim. And he became incensed that most of his orders appeared to be coming from Pakistanis.
In late 2014, working with local mediators from Nangahar, Hanafi laid down his arms.
"The Taliban are tired and will join if the government pays them, and if the government provides jobs for them," Hanafi said.
But efforts to maintain Afghan reintegration and de-radicalization programs are coming up against what Western diplomats and aid officials say is a tightening financial noose.
New funds for the program would have to be raised at an international summit in Brussels in October. But donors are skittish amid concerns about an unstable global economy, lower oil prices and the domestic price tag of the refugee crisis in Europe.
A question that remains unanswered, officials say, is whether an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Taliban fighters - as well as tens of thousands of sympathizers - can even be de-radicalized.
In a report last fall, the U.S. Institute for Peace concluded that moderate Afghan influences are being "outmanuevered by both violent extremist groups and nonviolent Islamist groups and charismatic mullahs with better organizational skills and better grassroots contacts and networks, particularly among youth."
The international effort is also struggling to achieve results because it largely overlooks the influence that Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran wield to stir up fundamentalist passions in Afghanistan, said Ali, the security analyst.
New madrassas and mosques supported by those countries are a pipeline for radical thought, he said.
De-radicalization, he said, "has failed, and the reason it has failed is because we don't go to the root causes of the radicalization, which are the policies of these countries that support it."
But the Obama administration has appeared reluctant to take on Saudi Arabia or Pakistan over the issue. Instead, the administration is spending some $33 million in Afghanistan on Countering Violent Extremism programs, which sponsor cultural, entertainment and educational efforts - from a local version of Sesame Street to skateboard lessons. But millions of dollars also go to more-shadowy initiatives that seek to bolster moderate clerics or help Afghan politicians and media personalities draft public messages.
Though the State Department tries to shield the identity of some grant recipients, citing fears of militant reprisals, much of the money appears concentrated in major Afghan cities, largely bypassing rural areas most at risk of becoming radicalized, said Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp.
"Without seeing better evidence, I am going to be skeptical these programs are having much of an impact," Jones said.
While some Afghan officials credit the High Peace Council for de-escalating hundreds of local conflicts, other officials question whether Afghanistan's version of walking-around money can make a lasting difference.
"It's not going to convince die-hard Taliban, because these Taliban have links to outsiders who can give even more payments," said Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi, a former Afghan governor.
Peace council officials say even a scaled-down reintegration program would be likely to require an additional $50 million to $75 million from international donors.
If money doesn't arrive, Hanafi says, he will look elsewhere for help - maybe taking up arms again.
"But not the Taliban," he cautioned. "We may have to do some sort of independent militia."
The Washington Post's Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.