Divide and Conquer

At an upcoming conference in London, the Afghan government will unveil its plan to bring the Taliban rank and file back into the political fold -- and plead for international assistance for its new initiative. 


Speaking over cups of tea and the sound of gunfire earlier this month, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, advisor to the Afghan president on domestic security, walked reporters through details of the government’s new strategy to reintegrate the Taliban. The rationale is simple: All but a small sliver of the Taliban’s support would disappear if the government provided better security, safety nets, and jobs. Through a combination of economic and security guarantees, explained Stanekzai, the government plans to entice lower and midlevel Taliban fighters to lay down their arms.

The NATO coalition behind Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has reacted to this new endeavor with cautious optimism. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband have pledged significant international backing; some expect as much as $1 billion to be raised for the program. Yet, as Afghanistan’s security continues to deteriorate and a crisis of legitimacy plagues the country’s government, Karzai’s allies may simply be sighing with relief that something, anything, is being attempted to reverse the country’s long slide into chaos.

Reintegration and reconciliation — known as "R2" to Afghan hands — is not a novel concept. The strategy of reaching out to the Taliban’s more moderate elements has been touted on numerous occasions throughout the eight-year war. Karzai, in particular, has a knack for reintroducing the idea whenever his popularity tumbles in Afghanistan’s restive Pashtun south.

However, previous attempts at swaying the Taliban’s rank and file have fallen flat, largely due to the inability to separate genuine insurgents from impostors eager to defraud the state. Similarly, preventing supposedly "rehabilitated" fighters from rejoining the insurgency proved equally challenging. These problems were exacerbated by the dwindling credibility of the Afghan government and the eventual withdrawal of financial support for the reintegration programs by its distracted international donors. Past attempts at political reconciliation with senior insurgent leaders — who were offered amnesty in exchange for laying down their arms, accepting the Afghan Constitution, and recognizing Karzai’s leadership — were quickly scuppered by Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun communities and Karzai’s Western allies, who abhor a negotiated settlement with those who harbored al Qaeda. Yet this most likely would have made little difference, as Taliban emir Mullah Omar and his inner circle have consistently set the withdrawal of all foreign forces as a precondition to any talks.

Stanekzai insists that this time the result will be different. He understands the daunting challenges facing the new initiative and admits that those hurling grenades and blowing themselves up just outside his office are not the ideal candidates for reintegration. Shouting over explosions, the minister was adamant, however, that "the long-term impact of these programs is to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening."

The United Nations estimates that only 170 Taliban flipped sides late last year, but the Afghan government now hopes that its new initiative will lure a significant number of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 active Taliban fighters in from the cold.

In exchange for renouncing violence and agreeing to at least tolerate the central government, the authorities in Kabul will provide reformed fighters with pensions, land, and jobs. Moreover, the government promises to work to protect former fighters and their families not only from Taliban retribution but also from various pro-government and anti-Taliban elements that are eager to seek vengeance.

Although few deny that reintegration and reconciliation are critical to stabilizing Afghanistan, critics have taken aim at the timing of this new program. Some officials in Kabul, though understandably tight-lipped for fear of derailing any reintegration initiative ahead of this week’s conference on Afghanistan in London, argue that reintegration and reconciliation should be a natural extension of a successful military campaign. Moving prematurely, they warn, will be interpreted as a sign of weakness and an act of desperation. This fact, combined with U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops as early as July 2011, give a Taliban foot soldier or an Afghan farmer little reason to throw his loyalty behind the Afghan government, which is already on its back foot and will soon be left standing alone.

On the other hand, proponents of the government initiative think that Obama’s 2011 deadline proves that the United States does not aspire to maintain a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, undermining the Taliban’s chief rationale for armed conflict and placing their precondition to talks, namely the removal of all foreign forces, within reach. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, long-time Afghanistan-watcher Ahmed Rashid went so far as to suggest that an enlightened Taliban leadership, aware of its limitations in controlling the whole country, could leverage its current momentum to extract a grand bargain on as favorable terms as possible.

Both the detractors and supporters of the government’s initiative could be correct. Various segments of the Taliban will no doubt react differently to the government’s new offer. To better understand this dynamic, policymakers and analysts have carved the insurgent movement into subsets, each with its own distinct motivations and unique path to reconciliation.

The first category comprises the ideologically committed core leadership of various Taliban groups, along with their dedicated foot soldiers, who are working toward a violent overthrow of the current Kabul regime. The next group includes ordinary Afghans who choose to support Taliban operations on a full-time or part-time basis out of economic desperation or as an act of defiance against the corrupt central government, which they consider incapable of providing the most basic public services, such as security, justice, governance, and development. Lastly, there are Afghan tribal leaders whose support for the Taliban stems from either interclan competition — tribal leaders have often allied with the Taliban to gain a powerful patron in a feud against a Karzai-supported tribe — or the tribal leader’s self-interested calculation that it is more profitable to join the side he deems likely to win.

U.S. officials believe that these last two groups are estimated to represent as much as 80 percent of the insurgent movement. Luckily, these are also the individuals most amenable to any reconciliation outreach. As such, overcoming the political and economic deficits that spur their resistance, along with reintegrating previously marginalized tribes and sending clear signals of the international community’s lasting economic and military commitment to Afghanistan should, at least in principle, deflate the insurgency. 

Kai Eide, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, is less convinced. He thinks that Taliban leaders exert more control over their foot soldiers than they are given credit for. "I don’t believe it’s as simple as saying that these are people who are unemployed, and if we find them employment they will go our way," he admonished in an interview with the New York Times.

There is also the now glaring issue of the parallel, or "shadow Taliban," government that has taken hold in many parts of the country to challenge the writ of Kabul. After numerous false starts and missed opportunities, many Afghans have placed their loyalty behind the faction that has best succeeded in minimizing civilian deaths and providing law, order, and justice. In an alarming number of districts, this is not the government. Winning back these lost districts will require a significant show of strength to push out the now firmly established Taliban and convince locals that the scales have tipped yet again.

The alternative to a heavy-handed, district-by-district approach would be a broad reconciliation deal that would absorb these effective insurgent institutions, along with their leaders, into the Kabul government. But even with Secretary Gates conceding that the Taliban are now a part of Afghanistan’s political fabric, the United Nations contemplating the removal of Taliban names from its terrorist black list, and mercurial warlord and key Taliban ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar hinting that he might be receptive to talks, a grand bargain is unlikely to receive U.S. support unless Taliban leaders first publicly distance themselves from al Qaeda.

As recently as November, Mullah Omar pledged that a future Taliban regime would bring peace and noninterference from outside forces, and would pose no threat to neighboring countries. Mullah Manan, the Taliban’s second in command of Helmand province, has been quoted saying, "If the Americans leave, then we will not concern ourselves with them any longer…. That means we will never again allow our country to be used in the same way as it was used against America in the past."

Optimists have interpreted such statements as suggesting the Taliban-al Qaeda bond is more tenuous than previously believed. But after eight years spent holed up together in the hinterland of Pakistan’s tribal areas, their interests growing ever more extreme and entwined, it is difficult to believe that the Taliban is now more willing to turn on their honored guests than they were on September 12, 2001. Misplaced loyalties are loyalties nonetheless.

In the run-up to this week’s London conference on Afghanistan, where opinions do converge is over the realization that whatever window for reintegration and reconciliation does exist, it is closing fast.

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