Can turning Taliban foot soldiers turn Afghan war?
05 July, 2012
Former Taliban fighter Mullah Rassoul is a man with few friends. After he joined a NATO-backed programme to pacify lower-level insurgents this year, he says he was harassed by a government-supported militia in his area of north Afghanistan.
He considered rejoining his former Taliban comrades, but they see him as a traitor. "They said I had to prove my loyalty by killing foreigners or high-ranking Afghans," Rassoul said. "I used to have respect, money and weapons," the former insurgent, a soft-spoken, bearded 36-year-old, told Reuters. "Now, I can't even defend myself." As Western hopes for a peace deal with Taliban leaders fade, questions are mounting about how far a NATO scheme to entice foot soldiers to switch sides, now a mainstay of the West's political strategy in Afghanistan, can go toward ending a long insurgent war.
David Hook, the British major general who heads NATO efforts to sign up local Taliban fighters to a three-step programme that gives them training, community grants and amnesty for some crimes, said the so-called reintegration plan had recruited some 4,700 people since Oct 2010, mostly in areas of western and northern Afghanistan beyond the Taliban insurgency's core. While NATO commanders say the programme has begun to accelerate, other Western officials are sceptical of the latest attempt to demobilise fighters whose motives and circumstances are as diverse, and at times opaque, as Afghanistan itself. "It has had a tactical effect in some areas, but it is irrelevant to the outcome of the war," one Western official said on condition of anonymity.
While even the drive's proponents acknowledge it is not a 'game-changer,' they say it has the potential to trim the ranks of a militant group NATO estimates has 15,000 to 30,000 members. "It's our job to effectively reduce the fighting power of the insurgency," Hook said in an interview. Whether it can do so becomes a more pressing question as NATO nations prepare to withdraw most combat troops by the end of 2014, possibly weakening incentives to enter the programme, and as the United States struggles to restart a parallel peace process with the Taliban's reclusive leaders. Despite the reservations, Western officials say the programme, which costs a relatively modest sum of about $100 million a year, could help end violence on the ground if high-level talks resume.
The Obama administration's hopes for soon establishing peace talks between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban faded in March when the Taliban leadership, believed to be based in Pakistan, suspended their participation in the preliminary discussions run by US diplomats. "If there is a breakthrough at the top, there will be a huge torrent of lower-level fighters coming in," the Western official said. "We've got to be ready." Hook said efforts to settle local grievances that may have pushed Afghans to join the insurgency, such as land or tribal disputes, differed from previous attempts to turn Taliban back into ordinary villagers.
Afghanistan's recent past is as littered with efforts to demobilise fighters as it is with messy civil conflicts that begot them. The government of Soviet-backed leader Najibullah, for example, claimed to have reintegrated tens of thousands of fighters in the 1980s - not long before a vicious civil war broke out in which rival militias gutted the capital, Kabul. Since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, a series of UN and Afghan programmes have aimed to break up militias and collect vast sums of weaponry. Despite the best intentions, the war has grinded on and violence has escalated dramatically after 2006. Hook said the novelty of the current initiative, officially run by the Afghan government with support from the NATO-led international force, included community aid grants designed to ensure an ex-fighter's tribe and neighbours welcome him back. Fighters are also paid a stipend of $120 for several months and receive education and vocation training, but they are not guaranteed long-term work. Their motivation, NATO asserts, must be to return home "with their honour and dignity intact". At the programme's heart is the NATO assumption - which sceptics question - that the vast majority of Taliban take up arms for reasons other than ideology, such as the need for employment or a desire to settle local disputes.
Maqsoom Tajik, an insurgent commander who switched sides in Kunduz province five months ago, said he left the Taliban after militant leaders ordered him to conduct assassinations and sabotage public places, acts that could kill civilians. "I wanted to wage jihad against the foreigners, but not that," he said.