Reintegration: hype or hope?

by Julia Mahlejd on 2/28/2010 · 5 comments

If the last eight years of international military engagement in Afghanistan had been successful there would be no need to suddenly push for fighters to stop fighting and live peaceful and productive lives. They would already be doing so in droves because the insurgency would be weakened to the point of no longer being worthwhile and/or because there would be sufficient governance and economic development to present a more attractive alternative. But does that mean this new buzzword ‘reintegration’ is too little too late?

In his inauguration speech in November 2009 Karzai called out to his ‘disgruntled brothers’ in the Taliban to ‘return home’ and thus formally ushered in a new era of talks (‘negotiation’ is a dirty word in Afghanistan, it implies weakness) with insurgents. The international community, including the once-wary Americans, have gotten very excited about this. Could reintegration neatly represent the long-hoped-for exit strategy? After all, if insurgents stop doing their insurgency thing the international community can stop doing the counter-insurgency thing…

Sure, it’s been tried before (think DIAG, Peace Through Strength, Afghan New Beginnings Program, etc.) But like the co-dependent victim of domestic abuse the international community truly believe that this time it will be different, this time the promises are really meant. And it’s great that there really is international political momentum for reintegration – it will certainly be a factor in its potential success. The question is, do Afghans believe it will work?

Before I answer that let me back up a bit. The words ‘reintegration’ and ‘reconciliation’ have started to get bandied about all willy-nilly so here’s a clarification: reconciliation refers to higher-level insurgents being formally ‘forgiven’ by the, ahem, legitimate government of Afghanistan and offered equally high ranking positions on Team Peace. Reintegration concerns low to mid level guys renouncing the insurgency and going on to lead peaceful and productive lives back in their home communities.

Reintegration is neither a demobilisation program nor an indoctrination one. The point is to get these dudes to stop fighting and engage in a peaceful political process to achieve their political goals – even if these are to get rid of Karzai or international military presence in Afghanistan. Reintegration is simply the novel concept that if you bring solid governance structures, employment and development opportunities to a community people might stop trying to kill you.

Although the Afghan government has not yet announced a formal reintegration and reconciliation program, once it is announced in the spring it will certainly include whole-of-community benefits (funded lavishly, of course, by the international community) such as vocational training, employment opportunities, infrastructure development, etc. It will NOT be about buying out insurgents, rewarding them financially for their criminality.

Now, before all you nay-sayers get on your high horses and start calling reintegration and reconciliation a western ideal, recall that conflict resolution through peaceful discussion is traditionally Afghan and recommended in Islam. Moreover, forgiveness is as deeply enshrined in Pashtunwali as it is in the Christian paradigm.

So now returning to the question of what Afghans think of reintegration, I doubt we’ll be seeing yellow cabs all over the country plastered with ‘Reintegrate – it’s great!’ bumper stickers. But Afghans are sick of fighting. They want peace and unity. They may be cynical about how efficiently the program will be implemented but they are desperate for anything that might just mean an end to decades of fighting. And they are all about reconciling higher-level fighters first because these guys will bring in all their underlings. This may seem counter-intuitive to a westerner who would prefer to see the ‘$10 Taliban’ reintegrated first and their leaders punished, but this is what initial surveys reveal. Afghans on the whole long for unity and reintegration might just be a way to achieving it.

Will it work? On balance, I’m cautiously hopeful.

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– author of 10 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Julia has lived and worked in Afghanistan since 2008.

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Sailani February 28, 2010 at 2:40 am

A pet topic of mine, so I have to comment 🙂

I think it all depends on the stomach the Afghan junta has for real accommodation with the insurgent leadership – think Martin McGuinnes=”Mullah” Mohammed Omar …

Julia M February 28, 2010 at 4:37 am

I think accomodating STBL is far less abhorrent to the Afghan government than it is to the westerners.

Farhad February 28, 2010 at 2:17 pm

We are repeating history.

Let’s go back to 1989 when the Soviets army left and Najibuallah began the reconciliation process. Some Afghans in the resistance accepted and others didn’t because Pakistan and the US wanted the “commie” president out of Kabul. The most fundamentalist groups were further funded to make sure the Kabul government falls hard and anyone that accepts reintegration was eliminated.

Twenty years later, Karzai, who didn’t accept Najibuallah’s call, is asking for his own reintegration/reconciliation.

But what is stopping this process? And once again, it is PAKISTAN.

Yes, Pakistan recently arrested key Afghan Taliban figures. But why? There are reports that these individuals were independently taking part in the reconciliation process, which is unacceptable for Pakistan.

Aside from the Quetta Shura, there is the Haqqani network along with Hekmatyar’s Hezeb-e Islami, which is not getting any press attention. The day that Pakistan stops support for all these fundamental insurgents, Afghanistan will closer to peace.

Since the attempted coup of 1975 (led by Ahmad Shah Massoud and Hekmatyar against the Republic of Afghanistan), Pakistan has continued its support for Afghan insurgents in an endless struggle to control Afghanistan’s foreign policy, which can be equated to British India’s same struggle in the 1800s to the early 1900s.

Joe Harlan March 1, 2010 at 1:04 am

There are a few things I’d take issue with here.

Reading the phrase, “The last eight years of international military engagement” is a little bizarre, in that what has been missing is not more troops but any subnational governance follow up to make an insurgency unnecessary. I read an <a href=""article in the Washington Post recently that quoted a Taliban commander saying, “Nobody goes to the other side for fun; There must be a pain in your heart.”

It would stand to reason that if GIRoA had not given non-ideological Afghans a reason to turn to the Taliban, they wouldn’t have. And I don’t see those reasons being anything like insufficient military engagement.

Regarding previous attempts, by some measures those programs have been successful; e.g., as I recall, DIAG didn’t have the scope that the latest Reintegration efforts seem to. Additionally, previous efforts have been hampered in different ways, from lack of funding, to being undermined by *re*-armament programs, to focusing on the wrong people, to not actually ever involving anyone besides other westerners, etc. One might hope that the reason we think that “this time it will be different” is that both sides have learned from their mistakes. But yes — the question remains, do Afghans agree? I’m not sure.

Also, is Reintegration not a demobilisation program? Getting these dues to stop fighting would seem to be, by definition, demobilisation. And I thought governance was being treated separately from reintegration (and perhaps that’s a mistake).

The problem, I think, will be the unevenness of it. ISAF and GIRoA can’t do it all at once, and there will be resentment over the next village getting something while this one doesn’t. I hope we don’t create enemies faster than we can settle them.

reader March 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm

How does this fit with one of the US government’s justifications for being in Afghanistan, e.g. the reforming of Afghan society? Are we to hear less and less about female education, domestic violence, domestic society, etc. in the coming months? Not that I believed the government’s line, and to give them their credit they have been more humble of late, but they will still have to walk a fine line propaganda-wise what with the likes of Malalai Joya and RAWA running around, and now that Iraq has turned into a case of egg in the face for those who would force-feed democracy. Of course, maybe I am giving the US audience too much intellectual credit and the spin-masters not enough.

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