Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Buying off Afghanistan’s “$10 fighters”
If you can’t beat the Taliban, buy them out. At last week’s conference in London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s Western backers endorsed his latest attempt to lure away low level Taliban fighters with money and jobs, committing themselves to a $500 million fund to finance the re-integration plan. The logic is that a majority of the Taliban , 70 percent actually according to some estimates, are the so-called “$10 fighters” who do not share the leaders’ intense ideological motivation. They are driven to the Islamists because they are the only source of livelihood in a war-ravaged nation. So if you offered them an alternative, these rent-a-day foot soldiers can easily be broken.
Quite part from the fact that several such attempts have failed in the past, the whole idea that members of the Taliban are up for sale just when the insurgency is at its deadliest is not only unrealistic but also smacks of arrogance, Newsweek magazine notes in an well-argued article. It quotes Sami Yousoufsai a local journalist “who understands the Taliban as few others do” as laughing at the idea that the Taliban could be bought over.
“If the leadership, commanders, and sub commanders wanted comfortable lives, they would have made their deals long ago. Instead they stayed committed to their cause even when they were on the run, with barely a hope of survival,” the article says quoting the journalist. Now the Taliban are back in action across much of the south, east, and west, the provinces surrounding Kabul, and chunks of the north.”They used to hope they might reach this point in 15 or 20 years. They’ve done it in eight. Many of them see this as proof that God is indeed on their side.” Indeed one Taliban member reacted angrily to the idea of a buy-out. “You can’t buy my ideology, my religion. It’s an insult,”he said.
At another level, come to think of it, if theirs is a force largely made of rented foot soldiers, the Taliban have done exceptionally well taking control of large parts of the country massed against the world’s biggest military powers. Imagine what it would be like if this wasn’t just a $10 a day army as Karzai and his allies paint it to be and instead a proper fighting force.
So why would they defect ? And just how realistic is this ? The relatively few Taliban who did accept Karzai’s previous offers to return to society live virtually in self-exile in Kabul, afraid to go to their homes in the countryside where the Taliban won’t spare them. Some of those it had spoken to, Newsweek notes, wanted to go back to the Taliban, but they know they won’t be forgiven. So its a real problem, where do the Taliban go, even after Karzai offers them gobs of money. ” They wouldn’t want to live in expensive Kabul, where people on the streets would make fun of their country ways, huge black turbans, and kohl eyeliner. They hate everything that Kabul represents: a sinful place of coed schools, dancing, drinking, music, movies, prostitution, and the accumulation of wealth.”
Breaking an insurgency with money or turning ex-fighters against the insurgents is an old tactic. Indian forces did something similar in Kashmir to weaken the 20-year-revolt, back in the 1990s. They backed the creation of a force or the “Ikhwan” , many of them ex-fighters to take on the insurgents. For sometime the pro-government militia managed to inflict casualties, but it was a force, by the very nature of things, assembled to serve a purpose and then left pretty much to its own fate.. “We are dying a dog’s death,” I remember one of the members of the militia telling me, as the insurgents helped by intelligence from local villagers picked them off one by one in a matter of a few months. The Indian state, which had backed them earlier, had washed its hands off by then.
The problem is also how do you trust the Karzai administration, which barely a few weeks ago, was being pillored for running one of the most corrupt regimes . Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-born American writer, says there are formidable problems luring back the fighters into Afghan society. “First of all, what civil society? Second, who will administer the program? Karzai’s officials? Money is like DMSO to those guys. The moment it gets into their hands, it sinks into their palms. ”
Looked at, in another way, the money may not still not be enough. The plan is to spend $500 million to drain 30,000 fighters from the insurgency over the next five years. That comes to about $17,000 per man or about $3,300 a year. “ Those men could make more than that from drug-thuggery and Talibanist protection rackets,” says Ansary.
Also that kind of money thins out rather quickly as it is distributed across southern Afghanistan. “What happens when some fighter joins the program, gets a bit of money and starts an auto repair shop, but his 25 first cousins don’t? Will they not tar the one guy who profited from the program as a traitor who took foreign money to betray his own,” he says.
That said, it may still be worth a try, given there aren’t many options, Ansary says .Half a billion dollars may sound like a lot to spend on an initiative that will probably achieve, at best, only a little. But compare that to the $30 billion it could cost to sustain an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for one year.