Program Aims to Reintegrate Former Insurgents in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — An Afghan-led pro­gram to rein­te­grate for­mer insur­gents is help­ing to sta­bi­lize com­mu­ni­ties, dis­tricts and provinces through­out Afghanistan, the gen­er­al lead­ing NATO Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force’s con­tri­bu­tion to this effort said.

British Army Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, direc­tor of ISAF’s Force Rein­te­gra­tion Cell, described to Pen­ta­gon reporters today via video uplink from Kab­ul, Afghanistan, the rein­te­gra­tion program’s role in Afghanistan’s long-term peace strat­e­gy.

There are now 2,418 for­mer fight­ers enrolled in the pro­gram, Jones said, In con­trast with this time last year, when the process exist­ed only on paper.

“These are 2,418 men who are no longer shoot­ing at the coali­tion and Afghan sol­diers, no longer lay­ing road­side bombs that kill inno­cent women and chil­dren,” he said.

Jones said the rein­te­gra­tion process works in phas­es: when for­mer insur­gents wish to enroll, Afghan offi­cials inter­view them, take iris and fin­ger­print scans, and store that data in gov­ern­ment sys­tems. After the for­mer fight­ers inte­grate back into their vil­lages, inter­na­tion­al dona­tions ded­i­cat­ed to com­mu­ni­ty improve­ment take hold.

“The $142 mil­lion that is in the inter­na­tion­al trust fund is almost exclu­sive­ly focused on com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment projects,” he said, adding that both the cen­tral Afghan gov­ern­ment and inter­na­tion­al donors empha­size for­mer insur­gents shouldn’t receive mon­e­tary incen­tives to lay down their arms.

In Badghis, where rein­te­gra­tion has been in place for nine months, there is now a voca­tion­al train­ing cen­ter with 400 to 500 peo­ple going through the rein­te­gra­tion process, along with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, enrolled in six-month pro­grams, he said.

For­mer fight­ers do receive a stipend of rough­ly $120 per month for three months “to ease them out of the fight and ease them back into the com­mu­ni­ties,” Jones said.

“Fight­ers them­selves have the great­est incen­tive of all, which is to be able to step off the bat­tle­field with their hon­or and dig­ni­ty intact and return to Afghanistan and live in peace,” he added.

While rein­te­gra­tion has pro­gressed quick­ly in some ways, Jones said, the process is slow and incre­men­tal, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the volatile south­ern and east­ern provinces.

“[The] huge chal­lenge was to over­come some of the incred­i­ble skep­ti­cism and doubt that a peace pro­gram of any type could emerge in the mid­dle of a con­flict,” he added.

The Afghan approach to peace build­ing and rein­te­gra­tion focus­es on build­ing trust and con­fi­dence “amongst peo­ple who have been fight­ing the gov­ern­ment and each oth­er for many years,” he not­ed.

“Through the out­reach of polit­i­cal, social and reli­gious lead­ers of the provinces and dis­tricts, peace is built vil­lage by vil­lage if nec­es­sary,” he explained. “So while we all feel a great sense of urgency to break the cycle of vio­lence … [we must] respect the neces­si­ty of the coura­geous, patient, con­fi­dence-build­ing and con­flict res­o­lu­tion work of lead­ers and elders.”

At the end of the program’s first year, Afghanistan’s High Peace Coun­cil has a joint sec­re­tari­at to man­age the process, with peace com­mit­tees in 32 provinces and sec­re­tari­ats in 25 provinces, he said, while rein­te­gra­tion is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing in 20 provinces.

“To my mind, that’s a mag­nif­i­cent achieve­ment,” he said.

Jones acknowl­edged the num­ber of peo­ple being for­mal­ly rein­te­grat­ed is mod­est “in com­par­i­son to our scale of ambi­tion.”

ISAF has esti­mat­ed the num­ber of insur­gents in Afghanistan at 25,000, a mix of full-time fight­ers and vil­lagers moti­vat­ed by long-stand­ing trib­al or com­mu­ni­ty con­flict, he said.

“The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of groups join­ing the [rein­te­gra­tion] process so far have been low-lev­el fight­ers,” he said. “But … we’re see­ing more sig­nif­i­cant groups begin­ning to flow in across the coun­try.”

Their depar­ture from the bat­tle­field is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to peace in Afghanistan, Jones said, where decades of con­flict have left peo­ple cau­tious and wary.

“As the process con­tin­ues to push ahead, we see con­fi­dence grow, enabling provin­cial peace coun­cils across the coun­try to build peace strate­gies and work on griev­ance res­o­lu­tion,” he said.

Jones said ISAF’s role in the process is to work with Afghan mil­i­tary and civ­il part­ners to coor­di­nate across gov­ern­men­tal func­tions: secu­ri­ty, polit­i­cal out­reach, gov­er­nance, rule of law and devel­op­ment.

“This is an Afghan pro­gram, designed by Afghans and led by Afghans. But we’re keen sup­port­ers, able and will­ing to do what­ev­er we can to sup­port the Afghan peace and rein­te­gra­tion pro­gram,” he said.

About two-thirds of for­mer fight­ers in the rein­te­gra­tion pro­gram come from the country’s nine north­ern and four west­ern provinces, Jones said. The remain­ing third come from the south and east, he said, includ­ing rough­ly 100 in Kan­da­har, 20 to 30 so far in Hel­mand, 40 to 50 in Kunar, and more than 100 in Lagh­man.

“It’s emerg­ing in much small­er groups in the south and east,” he said. “But this is where we’re start­ing to see some of the real growth in peo­ple tack­ling this process.”

Helmand’s Gov­er­nor Gulab Man­gal “was one of the first to get into this, real­ly work­ing through the tribes, the trib­al elders, through the reli­gious lead­ers, to reach out to build peace,” Jones said.

Man­gal has “rel­a­tive­ly for­mal­ly but very dis­creet­ly” rein­te­grat­ed 200 to 300 for­mer fight­ers “very qui­et­ly,” Jones added.

“They’re not reg­is­tered in our pro­gram yet,” he said. “They will come.”

In Hel­mand and oth­er bor­der provinces, Jones said, con­flict is heav­ier and insur­gent intim­i­da­tion efforts stronger than in oth­er areas.

“Peo­ple [there] in some respects are still weigh­ing up whether they real­ly want to com­mit them­selves con­clu­sive­ly to the gov­ern­ment, but they want­ed to step out of the fight; they want peace and sta­bil­i­ty,” he said.

Jones is now almost fin­ished with his fourth Afghan tour since 2002. When his cur­rent stretch of duty start­ed in May 2010, he said, “I was … quite shocked to find that some of my Afghan col­leagues who I knew very well over the years felt pro­found­ly gloomy about the future of Afghanistan.”

A year and a half ago, tran­si­tion as a process didn’t exist, Jones not­ed.

“There was a real con­cern that there was going to be a very pre­cip­i­tous drop-off of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty this year, while the Tal­iban was still seen as an exis­ten­tial threat to the gov­ern­ment in some provinces,” he said.

Since then, surges in troop num­bers, civil­ian assis­tance and Afghan secu­ri­ty capa­bil­i­ty have had “quite a pro­found effect,” he said.

“It hasn’t tipped the strate­gic bal­ance of con­fi­dence con­clu­sive­ly one way, but it’s cer­tain­ly reshaped it from a pro­found gloom to peo­ple who are start­ing to grap­ple with a more order­ly future,” he added.

Afghans are more con­fi­dent, as well, that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty pres­ence in their coun­try will con­tin­ue beyond 2014, he said.

“This is not a pre­cip­i­tous drop off the edge of a cliff at the end of 2014. This is an order­ly process of tran­si­tion that hands over Afghan sov­er­eign­ty in every respect,” he said. “There’ll be a require­ment for an inter­na­tion­al pres­ence to sup­port many parts of the grow­ing ele­ments of gov­ern­ment for some time to come.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)