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May 21, 2010 | Commentary

On May 12, US President Obama backed the Afghan government’s new plan to demobilize and reintegrate Taliban combatants willing to renounce violence and respect the Afghan constitution. The Afghan Peace and Reintegration Plan (APRP) was formerly presented at the London Conference in January and is to be formally presented at a Peace Jirga of tribal leaders in Kabul later this month.  The plan is backed by approximately $160 million in pledges from the United States, Japan, Britain and others.   According to copies of the 36-page document obtained by various news organizations, the ambitious plan calls for the demobilization and reintegration of both low level insurgents, as well as higher ranked commanders, who could be removed from the UN’s sanctions list and given safe passage into exile.  However the United States remains opposed to this engagement with high-level Taliban, preferring to follow General McChrystal’s plan to break the Taliban’s momentum before reaching out to its leadership.

While the plan has yet to be formally confirmed, provincial governors have been instructed by the central government to begin reaching out to insurgents.  As the plan stands, it presents an array of options for combatants.  Literacy programs, vocational training in a wide variety of subjects, de-radicalization programs, and psychosocial counselling are to be provided to ex-combatants, as well as development aid to their villages.  The plan also calls for the establishment of a civil emergency response unit, as well as engineering, agricultural and conservation corps.  Ex-combatants would be able to train for positions in these newly created units, or could elect to incorporate with the established Afghan security forces.

However, the proposed plan has provoked concern among a number of analysts.  In a recent report, A Force in Fragments: Reconstructing the Afghan National Army, the International Crisis Group raised doubts as to the effectiveness of the plan.   Specifically, other DDR programs have been so far ineffective in their stated goals due to corruption, weak benchmarks and poor verification mechanisms.  As well, the generally low faith in the central government will raise doubts among both civilians and combatants as to the ability of the Afghan government to follow through on its ambitious program.  The report concludes that efforts to integrate the Taliban into the Afghan National Army will undermine current efforts to reform and strengthen the military, especially if high level commanders are incorporated into the ANA.  Concerns have also been raised that the plan will compromise efforts at transitional justice by alienating those who have stayed out of the insurgency, and by providing amnesty for crimes committed by former insurgents.  While the distribution of development aid to former insurgent’s villages may ameliorate this concern, it remains a risk.  The concern by the Obama administration that negotiations with upper level commanders should wait also reflects the view of many that negotiations and reconciliation efforts (especially with high-level insurgents) should wait until the Afghan government and International Forces are in a position of strength, with the Taliban more willing to negotiate.

One final point to note is the fact that the sheer scope of this project would challenge even an established state bureaucracy, let alone one such as Afghanistan, which is still experiencing chronic instability and corruption.  There is concern over a lack of educators for vocational training, and the possibility that new DDR and aid programs could fuel further corruption without making any real progress.  While the reintegration plan is certainly ambitious, and has the potential to win over insurgents while rebuilding shattered infrastructure, the end result may be yet another layer of ineffective bureaucracy and a further alienation of the population from the central government.