It was a hopeful speech in a striking setting. On March 21, the first day of the Afghan New Year, Afghan Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili—a regal looking man with wireframe glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard—addressed a crowd of hundreds gathered at an ornate, blue-domed mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
In his speech, Khalili declared an end to decades of religious and ethnic violence. ‘We are going toward the light. We are never going back to the dark,’ he said. ‘We are going to start a new chapter.’
To that end, ‘the opposition should join the peace process to save the country.’
In security terms, Khalili was describing what is known as ‘reintegration,’ a word that can mean slightly different things depending on the context of the conflict it applies to. In Afghanistan, for example, a handout for soldiers published by the US-led International Security Assistance Force describes reintegration as ‘enabling local communities to welcome former insurgents back to Afghan society.’
Reintegration efforts have played a key role in the resolution of numerous conflicts across the globe. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which from the 1990s suffered one of the world’s bloodiest wars, President Joseph Kabila invited combatants to stop fighting in exchange for jobs in the country’s security forces. Tens of thousands accepted the offer—and major combat has faded, partially as a result of this amnesty.
Colombia, Thailand, and The Philippines have also successfully reintegrated large numbers of former rebels.
President Hamid Karzai clearly has similar hopes for Afghanistan. On several occasions, Kabul has sponsored half-hearted reintegration programmes, most of which apparently amounted to little more than pro-Karzai propaganda campaigns. Around January 2010, Karzai tasked one of his advisors, Masoom Stanekzai, with overseeing the new and more coherent Afghan Peace and Reintegration Programme, which was meant to guide Kabul’s appeal to, and reception of, former combatants.
The programme officially launched on July 1. The US government, clearly recognizing the initiative’s importance and potential, pledged $100 million toward its cost. Some of the money would fund the Stanekzai’s bureaucracy in Kabul; the rest would pay for ‘development…provided to communities to enable them to accept insurgents back,’ according to the ISAF handout. Presumably, that development would include jobs for former insurgents (although whether in local security forces or the civil economy is unclear).
All wars are fought at three levels of increasing breadth: tactical, operational, and strategic. With insurgents planting at least 1,300 Improvised Explosive Devices every month, and with ISAF forces controlling the sky, the Afghan war has become a tactical stalemate. On the operational level, ISAF’s inability to seal the porous border with Pakistan means insurgents possess safe havens and can sustain their resistance indefinitely.
All this means that the coalition’s only hope is for a top-down, strategic settlement—a truth British Army Maj. Gen. Philip Jones acknowledged at a press conference announcing the reintegration programme. ‘There will be no enduring military solution to the insurgency in Afghanistan,’ Jones explained. ‘Only an enduring political process…will assure the future of Afghanistan.’
But nearly a year after the current reintegration effort began, few if any insurgents have laid aside their weapons. Meanwhile, the Afghan National Security Forces that should be helping reintegrate former combatants are instead entirely focused on honing their fighting skills.
In light of that fact, Khalili’s New Year speech seems less like a vision of imminent peace than a desperate rejection of reality. It may be too soon to declare reintegration an ultimate and permanent failure, but it’s late enough in the day to admit it isn’t working the way it was supposed to.
With ISAF troops scheduled to begin their gradual withdrawal this summer, Khalili’s ‘new chapter’ is more likely to feature sustained, intensive combat between Afghan troops and Afghan and foreign insurgents than it is to see large numbers of combatants voluntarily giving up.
A decade after invading US troops hunting al-Qaeda opened a new phase in the decades-old Afghan civil war, the violence is slowly taking on a more purely Afghan character as the foreign armies depart and insurgents reject appeals to reintegrate. The war isn’t ending. It’s evolving.
A January 2010 dispatch from US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry published this year by WikiLeaks was sceptical of the reintegration programme.
After lavishing praised on Stanekzai as ‘a talented individual and open interlocutor,’ Eikenberry cautioned that ‘much work (is) needed to (be) carried out, including development of a communications strategy, engagement with clerical leaders and a plan for engagement with the government of Pakistan.’
Eikenberry also warned that the money associated with reintegration risked ‘creating perverse incentives, short-changing individuals and communities that have not fed the insurgency.’ He also highlighted the ‘potential for a lack of coordination with other governance and development initiatives targeting the same areas.’
The latter risk helps explain why, by March 2011, the reintegration process has apparently achieved virtually nothing. There have been no reports of insurgents laying down their arms in meaningful numbers. In Logar, a key agricultural province just south of Kabul and a major base for insurgent attacks on the capital, one US Army officer specializing in ‘information operations’—that is, propaganda and other persuasion techniques—was aware of just a single reintegrated insurgent.
US Army Lt. Col. William Chlebowski, commanding forces in part of Logar, also knew of just one attempt at reintegration—and an unsuccessful one, at that. ‘We had a bad dude,’ Chlebowski recalls. ‘The shura (local council) said he swore he wouldn’t do bad things.’
The shura’s claim seemed dubious, Chlebowski says. All the same, he and his men ‘just wanted to see if it would work.’ The Americans were prepared to receive the former insurgent according to the guidelines outlined in the ISAF handout. Proscribed steps include: interviewing the former combatant, registering him in a nationwide database, and helping connect him with the Afghan officials who will oversee his transition back to peaceful life.
But all that preparation was for nothing. ‘The shura never brought him in,’ Chlebowski admits.
The information-operations officer suggested one explanation for the lack of reintegration—and it’s identical to one of the concerns Eikenberry raised in his dispatch. While Stanekzai is apparently serious about the reintegration programme, his personal commitment hasn’t translated into the broad range of complex processes necessary to make reintegration actually work.
In Congo, international donors fund a UN organization called D-D Triple R (Demobilization, Disarmament, Repatriation, Resettlement, and Reintegration) that broadcasts messages to combatants via radio and works closely with UN peacekeepers, the Congolese military, and the Catholic Church to receive former fighters and mediate their return to their communities.
No such infrastructure exists in Afghanistan—and might never. It’s axiomatic in the country that Kabul is incapable of effectively influencing development and governance at the local level, where almost all reintegration would take place. ISAF’s entire development strategy for Afghanistan hinges on ‘connect(ing) people to their government,’ says 1st Lt. Heiko Deriese, a US Army ‘civil-military operations’ officer in Logar. If those connections already existed, ISAF wouldn’t be so focused on building them.
But there’s another, equally likely explanation for the lack of reintegration more than a year after the current initiative was launched. It’s possible that insurgents just aren’t interested in rejoining peaceful society for the same reasons they picked up their weapons in the first place—whether those reasons are religious, sectarian, or economic.
That Kabul is interested in making peace with opposition fighters doesn’t mean the fighters are interested in peace with Kabul. That’s a problem the Afghan National Security Forces recognize. While Stanekzai plots—however ineffectively—for reintegration, the Afghan army and police are planning to continue finding and fighting insurgents, even after ISAF has left.
Afghan vs. Afghan
After a decade of training and nearly $30 billion in international investment, ISAF’s long-standing goal of improving Afghan’s security forces is finally bearing fruit. As US and allied troops stage their slow withdrawal starting this summer, Afghan troops will steadily expand their control.
A day after Khalili’s speech in Mazar-i-Sharif, Karzai made his own New Year address. In it, he announced that most of Kabul, plus all of Panjshi and Bamiyan provinces and the cities of Herat and Lashkar Gah, would begin transitioning to full Afghan control in the coming months, with Afghan troops in the lead across Afghanistan by 2014.
Transition to Afghan control doesn’t mean the full departure of ISAF troops. Washington anticipates an end to its major combat operations in Afghanistan around the same time Afghan forces assume full control, but US troops will likely remain in supporting roles. Brig. Gen. Muhammad Sadiq, commander of the 4th Brigade, 203rd Corps, based in Logar, says he relies on ISAF for engineering and air support.
Other than that, ‘we are able to do every kind of operation,’ Sadiq boasts. He cited an incident last month when his brigade received a tip about insurgents in Logar and quickly launched an operation that killed nine enemy fighters.
‘The (Afghan) army here is very capable,’ says US Army Capt. Paul Rothlisberger, until recently the commander of forces in Logar’s Baraki Barak district. ‘They’re capable, they can communicate, they can provide security, and their leaders plan pretty well.’
With reintegration stalled, and Afghan security forces growing in capability and in confidence, the stage is set not for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but its continuation in a slightly different form. In all likelihood, the only true difference between Afghanistan in 2014 and Afghanistan in 2011 is that with fewer ISAF troops on the ground, Afghans will be doing even more of the dying.