New Strategy Emerges on Afghanistan

The key component of the new strategy on Afghanistan is the so-called ‘Karzai plan’ for a Taliban deradicalization and reintegration program that would use economic incentives to encourage Taliban members to give up their arms and cut any ties with al-Qaida.

The strategy commanded attention at a conference held on January 28th in London, and co-hosted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai. The conference, attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, his Special Representative for Afghanistan Kai Eide, and more than seventy foreign ministers of countries involved in Afghanistan, focused on the handover of security to Afghans, province by province, in order for international troops to be gradually withdrawn.

The ambition to reintegrate Taliban members is in itself a worthy one, but the details of how such a plan would be implemented were scant. The few specifics given at the conference related to a $500 million “reintegration trust fund” to be set up by the international community, a call for a peace jirga in the next month or two, and a peace process in which Saudi Arabia has been asked to play an as yet undefined role. Some $140 million has been pledged thus far to the fund.

Such an approach leaves a number of questions unanswered. The first is, Who exactly are the Taliban? They can hardly be defined as a uniform group. A recent report by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) on the reasons for radicalization in Afghanistan points out that the insurgency’s drawing power depends upon a number of factors. These include the lack of employment, the perception of the current government as corrupt and partisan, resentment over a perceived global attack on Islam, the failure of the state to provide security and justice, and the conduct of foreign forces.

The UK Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, suggested that while some local Afghans joined the Taliban because they were ideologically committed, others did so because they were offered money. “They are perfectly open to persuasion to integrate into Afghan society,” he said. “These are the Afghans we need to try and pry away from the Taliban.”

But where, one might ask, does it leave insurgents motivated by reasons other than financial dire straits? Furthermore, doesn’t this approach ignore the Taliban groups in Pakistan, such as the Quetta shura led by Mullah Omar, and the Peshawar, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan shuras?

Mr. Karzai, in his conference speech, asked “all our neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to support our peace and reconciliation” efforts, and stressed the importance of regional cooperation. Yet, no concrete plans to deal with the Taliban in Pakistan seem to exist. Alan Johnson’s response to this question was that the Pakistanis are dealing with it the best they can. “I am not one to lecture Pakistan,” he said.

Asked if Pakistan had similar reintegration plans, Makhdoom Qureshi, the country’s Foreign Minister, responded, “We do not have that problem.”

Janan Mosazai, an Afghan civil-society activist and parliamentary candidate, suggested that the pay-off-the-Taliban plan resembles the British-led counternarcotics strategy of 2004, which was based on buying off poppy farmers. In fact, the next year saw an increase in poppy cultivation, in part to take advantage of the money on offer. Mosazai argued that similarly “this plan to buy off so-called ‘$10 Taliban’ could turn into another money-making scheme for unscrupulous people.” While financial rewards for leaving the Taliban might work for some members, it might have been worth exploring the idea of creating employment through local public work schemes in order to provide guaranteed long-term incomes, as opposed to one-off cash handouts which surely could not go a long way.

Under an earlier arrangement that encouraged Taliban members to leave the organization, the promises to reintegrate them and to give them protection when they did so were often not kept by government forces, leaving a sense of distrust among many who ended up returning to the insurgency. This experience raises the important issue of implementation and how it would work at the regional and district levels. Would the central government, for instance, put it into effect or would it be bypassed, as it was recently when the US paid an entire tribe to unite against the Taliban?

The conference also touched upon various other developments in the Afghan strategy: its security forces will be raised to a total of 300,000; justice and human rights programs and anticorruption task forces will be put into place; a much needed push to deliver 50 percent of development aid through the central government will be implemented within the next two years: and a timetable for the handover of security to Afghan forces will be established.

Though the conference firmly established “reintegration” as a new buzz word, it slighted the subject of reconciliation. An Afghan group of women’s activists representing 200 nongovernmental organizations released a briefing paper arguing that no deal at all should be made with the Taliban given their pre-2001 human rights record. Others, such as Mr. Mosazai argued that, while there must be a political settlement, the Karzai government does not have the legitimacy to make sustainable deals. Instead, Mr. Mosazai suggested that a UN-led peace process should be launched in which the Karzai government would be treated as one party in a conflict comprising of “four parties––the government, the Taliban, the West, and the people of Afghanistan.”

Mr. Eide, the UN envoy to Afghanistan, rightly stressed the importance of reintegration but added, “It has to be in parallel with a political process.” While the Security Council has kept up with this shift in mood by lifting sanctions on some members of the former Taliban government, the main thrust seems to be buying off Taliban foot soldiers, rather than politically engaging the leadership. But I would argue that there is no alternative but to go down the political route, either by cajoling or, if necessary, coercing all actors in the conflict to sit at the negotiating table. In order to do so, there has to be more of a plan than the few words meted out at the conference on a “peace jirga” and a peace process. The most basic “when, where, what, and who” of a peace process were all missing from the statements made at the conference.