Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Buying out Taliban foot soldiers a long shot

January 20, 2011


If a shopkeeper from Quetta impersonating as a Taliban commander made a mockery of President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to seek reconciliation with the insurgent leadership, a parallel programme to lure away foot soldiers  too made little headway last year. A bottom-up reintegration of  low to mid-level fighters back into society was meant to complement the top-down approach of seeking a compromise with the leadership. In the event, while there is little sign of  any engagement, at least in the public domain  ( although it has to be said for a peace process to be meaningful it probably has to be conducted away from the public eye), only a handful of rebels have stepped forward to lay down their weapons.

A year into the reintegration programme, less than 800 insurgents agreed to end the fight, according to  Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman. That makes up for less than 3 percent of the estimated militant strength of 30,000. At this rate it will take a decade to peel away the rank-and file, assuming the overall strength remains constant.  More disappointingly, the men who signed up for the programme weren’t even hard core Taliban. They were mostly low-level community-defense forces, Ackerman quotes British Maj.Gen. Phil Jones, the NATO official in charge of enticing the insurgents, as saying.

Most of them were from the relatively peaceful west and north of the country, and not from the south and east where the insurgency is at its deadliest since the war began in 2001. Again, have to enter a caveat that the north has heated up in recent months as well, so the gains perahps shouldn’t be dismissed altogether.

The big problem in the reintegration process  is lack of trust, says Jones.  The rebels are looking to return to the mainstream with honour and dignity and protection from the Taliban who are sure to seek retribution.. Last year they killed a dozen men who had signed up for the process in the northern province of Baghlan. If the government  cannot guarantee protection, and that is not very easy especially in the south, then all its offers of jobs and education will be meaningless.

Some Afghan experts question the basic premise of the reintegration programme. The programme  rests on the belief that many of the Taliban “grunts” are driven to fight by economic necessity, and not by any ideological fervour.  So you buy them off by offering money and some form of employment backed up by security. Matt Waldman , a Fellow at Harvard University’s  Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, argued in a paper last year that there was a fundamental disconnect between what the insurgents were fighting for and what the government had to offer.

Poverty and unemployment were principle motivating factors for up to half the men fighting, Waldman said, on the basis of conversations with Afghan elders, tribal leaders and three of the seven insurgent commanders he interviewed for his study entitled Golden Surrender and published on the Afghan Analysts Network.  This was linked to the social deprivation and stigma associated with poverty, as opposed to the sense of purpose, status, and comradeship offered by the insurgency.

But economic destitution was not alone responsible for a young man to live the life of the hunted.  Insurgents were often forced to stay at different locations each night, and spend long periods away from family, friends and relatives.  Waldman says his interviews showed there were often  more immediate or fundamental reasons driving people to join the insurgency.  This could be tribal, community or groups exclusion,  feuds and conflicts, government predation or corruption, perversion of justice,; civilian casualties and abusive raids or detentions; resistance to perceived western occupation or suppression of Islam.  It could be one of these or a combination of factors, and not all had to do with economic hardship. A Taliban commander in Kandahar is quoted as saying :

If we were fighting for money we would try to find work. At the moment our country is invaded, there is no true sharia, there is crime and corruption. Can we accept these for money? How then could I call myself a Muslim and an Afghan?

As  Kai Eide, the former U.N. Special Representative said,  you could buy  a young man out of unemployment but how do you “buy him out of his convictions, sense of humiliation or alienation from power.”

(Photography of Taliban fighters giving up their weapons in southern Helmand province. Reuters/Abdul Malik)




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