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U.S. military, Afghan officials put faith in underused reintegration program

Late last month the Arghandab district governor, seated at his desk, questions the young man before him, a detainee caught working for the Taliban, about his commitment to renouncing the insurgency. The governor signed off on a reintegration agreement under the national Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program that would allow the foot soldier to be released back into the community without punishment in exchange for him agreeing to no longer fight against the government.

MEGAN MCCLOSKEY/STARS AND STRIPE

By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 10, 2011

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — The 20-year-old from western Arghandab had been caught working for the Taliban. Less than two weeks later in the district governor’s office, crammed with elders from his village, the detainee signed a contract that said, “I now want to surrender to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and no longer join forces with the Taliban.”

His village elders had vouched for him, pledging with a blue thumbprint on a contract of their own that they would keep the wayward youth on the straight and narrow, and report him if he strays.

Before signing off on the deal, the governor wagged a pen at the skinny detainee standing lazily on the other side of his desk.

“You won’t help the Taliban out anymore?”

It was more a proclamation than a question, but the governor waited for the young man to answer that he wouldn’t.

“You’ll check in with the police chief every week?” the governor prodded, and the young man agreed.

And with that, the foot soldier was “reintegrated” into the community, without penalty.

He and a Taliban commander from the district, who came forward voluntarily for reconciliation, are among the first in Kandahar province to participate in the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program.

President Hamid Karzai’s program to allow insurgents to lay down arms and rejoin society launched with much fanfare last summer and was lauded as the way to establish peace. But six months later, the program exists mostly on paper and in radio advertisements.

In the Taliban heartland around Kandahar City, the program is slowly moving forward after months of intense clearing operations this fall.

There is little guidance, though, from national or provincial leadership on how to implement the program, so the military and Afghan officials at the district level make it up as they go.

“It’s really off the cuff, an experimental process,” said Capt. Venkat Motupalli, intelligence officer for 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which operates in western Arghandab.

The program relies on the elders to monitor their own — empowering the village elders reinforces long-held traditions. But many of the elders, at least in Arghandab, vouch for all of their villagers, regardless of any crime committed, and are reluctant to identify the Taliban.

Despite that shaky foundation, military and Afghan officials are willing to risk allowing Taliban fighters to rejoin the community on little more than a promise to live peacefully.

“This is the way to victory,” said Lt. Col. David Flynn, commander of 1-320th. “And it’s not going to be on the national level. Reconciliation has to happen at this level, where friend entices friend to come back and end the madness.”

A few hundred people across the country — some Taliban, some not — have signed on for the program, according to International Security Assistance Force spokesman Gary Younger.

In the Arghandab, just two men have completed the program.

The Taliban commander, who was described by the U.S. military as significant and equated to a battalion staff officer, went a couple months ago to the district police of chief, whom he had known for years, and said he didn’t want to fight anymore.

“He came out of nowhere on his own,” Flynn said.

The alleged commander worked with the national government to sort out his reconciliation.

The military can’t find him right now — the hope is he’s lying low and hasn’t been killed — and officials are waiting to see whether his reconciliation holds up and those below him in his Taliban cell follow suit, Flynn said.

The 20-year-old detainee from western Arghandab was a less than ideal candidate for reintegration. The spirit of the program is for Taliban fighters to come forward voluntarily like the commander did, not after they have been caught. But in the program’s infancy, military officials are taking opportunities where they can find them.

Flynn also wanted to get the program off the ground.

“The way I see it, this is a way for the district governor to get some practice under his belt.”

After the young man had been detained, the elders of his village went to Flynn and tried to negotiate his release along with another villager who had been arrested at the same time. They asked about the reintegration program they had heard about on the radio.

“One had a great deal of evidence against him,” said Jesse Wolfe, a State Department representative in Arghandab. “The other we felt like had more potential, and he was willing to make a commitment to go back to the community.”

Colin Guest, another State Department representative, said: “He was a guy hanging out with the wrong crowd and getting into trouble.”

The military also wasn’t sure whether his case would hold up in the persnickety Afghan court system.

“It was a coin flip to me whether or not he was going to get long-term detention,” Flynn said.

They decided to propose reintegration to the district governor, who agreed to put the former Taliban foot soldier on what is essentially probation for six months. He has to report to the district chief of police each week, and will be closely monitored in the cash-for-work program.

Some fighters who participate in the reintegration program will be hooked up with job training and employment. The cash-for-work program is common across Kandahar and open to any villager, as military commanders try to bolster the economy and complete projects, such as canal renovations.

The military wanted some assurance that once released the “he wasn’t going to blow us up the next day,” Motupalli said.

He said that as the reintegration process gets rolling, there will probably be crimes forgiven that they normally wouldn’t like to see, but ultimately at this low level of the Taliban, “they’re not evil masterminds.”

Flynn will soon make a courtesy call the young foot soldier to ask how life on the right side of the line is going.

Officials admit there’s not a lot they can do to ensure the young man abides the probation and the elders hold up their end of the bargain.

“At the end of the day the enforceability of this thing is fragile,” Flynn said.

But for this to work, he said, “we’ve got to take a chance at some point.”

mccloskeym@stripes.osd.mil

Outside the Arghandab district governor's office, before walking away a free man, a former detainee, left, who was caught working for the Taliban, waits as an elder from his village talks to the U.S. military about the young man's agreement to renounce the insurgency and "reintegrate" back into the community. The 20-year-old was one of the first in Kandahar to participate in the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program that allows Taliban fighters to lay down arms and freely go back to their communities.
MEGAN MCCLOSKEY/STARS AND STRIPE

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