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Allies turn Afghan insurgents into partners

ISAF seeks to reintegrate insurgents back into society

Oct. 30, 2009

By Sean D. Naylor, Staff writer

KABUL — A new initiative to persuade low- and mid-level Afghan insurgents to lay down their weapons and rejoin society is already bearing fruit and holds great promise for the future, say senior officials in the NATO coalition here. A similar strategy is credited with decreasing the violence in Iraq.

Though the Afghanistan "reintegration" initiative is only now getting off the ground, hundreds of insurgents have taken advantage of it, and many others are waiting for the Afghan government and the coalition to announce the specifics of the reintegration plan, said Maj. Gen. Mike Flynn, the director of intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force.

Flynn and other ISAF officials emphasize that they do not view the reintegration effort as a "silver bullet" that will bring a quick victory over the insurgency. Nevertheless, said British Lt. Gen. Jim Dutton, the deputy ISAF commander, "There is lots and lots of potential in this."

The initiative is based on the strong belief at ISAF headquarters that most insurgents are not ideologically committed to their leaders' aims and would be willing to quit fighting under the right conditions.

"What we're finding is the dissatisfied, disenfranchised, traumatized folks who are the ones who are the foot soldiers for the ideologues or the radical folks … often find themselves in a position where if they need to take care of their family, the only way to do that is to implant IEDs or to fire shots at the coalition," said Col. John Agoglia, director of the counterinsurgency training center here. "A majority of these folks, if given the means to provide for themselves and their family, will very easily lay down their weapons."

The Afghans call them the "upset brothers," the low- and mid-level fighters who are fighting for money or to gain revenge for some perceived injustice, or because they are being coerced, rather than for ideological reasons or out of a lust for power. The phrase has caught on with ISAF.

It is these "upset brothers" at whom the reintegration initiative is targeted.

"The reasons why people fight will be different in different villages and different communities in different parts of the country, but a lot of the drivers of instability and a lot of the drivers for the reasons why these individuals fight are indeed rectifiable," said Col. Chris Kolenda, a special adviser to ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and director of strategy for reintegration.

Although persuading insurgents in Iraq to stop fighting the coalition — and in many cases to fight with the coalition against al-Qaida in Iraq — was crucial to lowering the violence levels there, Kolenda said there are important distinctions between the two countries.

"In Iraq you could talk to a tribal sheikh and that individual commands the loyalty of 10,000 individuals," he said. "The tribal structure in Iraq had not atrophied."

In contrast, over the past 30 years the Afghan tribal structures have broken down under the pressure of war and deliberate attempts to fracture them on the part of the Afghan communist government in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. "I cannot go to the head of the Ghilzai Pashtun confederation and say, ‘Hey, let's have all the Ghilzais stop fighting,'" Kolenda said. "That individual doesn't exist."

In Afghanistan the key to persuading the "upset brothers" to put down their weapons is to give them a way to return safely to society with their heads held high, officials said. "People are looking for a way to change sides, to turn back to legitimacy, but they have to do it in a way that guarantees their safety, [allows them] to return with some honor, and there has to be a way to make a living," said a senior ISAF official.

Doing this will require the Afghan government and the coalition to create localized solutions for every community where insurgents are interested in coming in from the cold, Kolenda said.

"If we can create dynamics within communities … where you have social, economic, political opportunity that is tailored to the needs of that local community, you're going to create a significant amount of attraction for people to come back into that community and lead a peaceful and productive life as a part of it because they've got opportunities that are relevant to them," he said, adding that creating these opportunities will also help persuade those Afghans who are sitting on the fence to support the government and coalition efforts.

A four-step program

Not all insurgents will be amenable to reintegration, ISAF officials acknowledge. "You've got your ideologically driven individuals or those who are driven by a hunger for power that are simply not going to be reintegrated peacefully into their communities, and so those are the individuals that successful targeting will need to remove from the battlefield," Kolenda said. "Or, as I've seen time and again, when communities have sufficient support and leverage they just start kicking these guys out of their local areas."

After discussing the issue with ministers in the Afghan government, the members of ISAF's newly-created Force Reintegration Cell have concluded that a successful reintegration program requires four "essential components," Kolenda said.

* The first is a "strategic framework" that links the "critical stakeholders" from the national down to local levels and that has the flexibility to capitalize on fleeting opportunities to reintegrate insurgents in communities, "or if there are particular individuals that require targeting," Kolenda said.

* The second is "shaping and messaging, [which] deals with both lethal and non-lethal targeting to help set conditions for these initiatives to take place at local levels," he said.

* "The third piece is community mobilization," Kolenda said. "All problems in Afghanistan, or at least all social local problems, are solved at the community level. And so enfranchising communities with ownership in local governance, local security, localized development, will help bring communities together and help create the pressure and attraction to bring young men back into peaceful existence."

* The fourth component is "individual and group demobilization," which involves creating mechanisms that enable individuals and groups who wish to stop fighting "to be reintegrated and become productive members of society," he said.

A key part of the program is to shift the focus of development programs down to the local level, Kolenda said. "The Afghans have this great saying — ‘If you sweat for it, you protect it' — and so getting highly localized development in the hands of communities is critical," he said. "The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has a great program called the national solidarity program, where money is given in block grants from an Afghan reconstruction trust fund directly to a village, so the village owns the project, the village operates the project, the people in the village are employed."

Of more than 40,000 projects built through the program, about five to 10 percent have been vandalized by local insurgents or criminals, he said.

"Community ownership is crucial and we often haven't done that well in the past eight years with our aid and development programs."

Getting everyone involved

Taking a localized approach — what Kolenda calls "community enfranchisement" — to security is also important, he said, noting that Defense Minister Rahim Wardak "has expressed his interest in and support for community neighborhood watch-like initiatives that have measures of transparency and accountability where the entire community is involved in this, so you don't wind up creating local warlords or local strongmen."

The Force Reintegration Cell is run by British Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, who came to Kabul at McChrystal's invitation. A former officer in the Special Air Service — the British unit upon which Delta Force was modeled — Lamb worked on reintegration efforts in Northern Ireland and, under Gen. David Petraeus, in Iraq. He is about to retire from the British army, but will stay in Kabul as an adviser to McChrystal, while another British officer, Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons, will take his place at the head of the cell and become ISAF deputy chief of staff for reintegration, Kolenda said.

While ISAF is putting a lot of resources and energy into the reintegration effort, coalition officials say that for reintegration to work, the Afghan government must take the lead and make it a priority.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his ministers have said that "when the election thing sorts itself out that they're going to push forward programs that will support that accommodation of a fighter who just simply wants to go back home," the senior ISAF official said. "Until that's defined in a way that makes sense to them — them being the fighters — with the accommodations all having to come from the Afghans, then there is no program."

But official program or no, the mere public discussion by Karzai and other Afghan officials of a possible reintegration effort has set in motion events that threaten to outpace the creation of a reintegration bureaucracy. ISAF's original plan was to spend the rest of 2009 putting the program together and then executing it in 2010, Kolenda said. But that schedule may be getting overtaken by events. "I think it's going to happen a lot faster than that," Flynn said. "The reintegration word is out."

Proactively jumping ship

Coalition officials have monitored insurgents talking about the reintegration effort, Flynn said. The essence of the conversations is that the insurgents want to know what the finished reintegration plan will be, he added.

Some insurgents aren't waiting for the Afghan government and ISAF to formalize their approach, however. In one case, a low-level insurgent leader in Wardak approached the Afghan security forces with an offer to quit fighting if the government would relocate him, his 50 fighters and their families — about 400 people in all — to Kabul, as they no longer would have felt safe from the Taliban in Wardak. Because there is as yet no plan on how to handle such requests, the government's response was, "Thank you — let's keep talking to each other, but we can't resettle you," Flynn said.

Elsewhere, things have moved more successfully. Low-level insurgent leaders have already quit in Ghazni, Paktika and Helmand provinces, Flynn said.

The most high-profile example of insurgents seeking to reintegrate occurred in the wake of the killing of Ghulam Yahya Akbari on Oct. 9, the so-called "Tajik Taliban" commander, who, together with his two sons, had carried out a reign of terror across parts of western Afghanistan.

After his sons were killed late this summer, "Yahya became even more relentless in his prosecution of suicide attacks and rockets into Herat airfield, etc.," Flynn said. Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan conducted "a very effective man-hunting campaign against him, and it eventually paid off," he said.

"When he was killed it was like the weight of the world was taken off a couple of fairly large swaths of people," Flynn said. "The prices of foodstuffs went down in certain bazaars and markets out there because Yahya was jacking them up ... More bazaars opened up. And then, of course, once this sort of weight of intimidation came off of the shoulders of these people, many of the fighters said, ‘Hey, I'm done.'"

As a result of the coalition killing "a guy who acted as though he was invincible … somewhere between a hundred and 200 fighters [have given up]," Flynn said. "That's pretty significant."

In the case of Yahya, it required killing a commander to persuade his fighters to give up. In Helmand, all it took to get "a couple of hundred" insurgents off the battlefield was for coalition forces to remove some local Taliban commanders from their targeting list, Flynn said.

Some of those fighters have reintegrated into their communities, "and some provide intelligence — and it's still very dangerous for them," Flynn said, adding that "in some cases" coalition forces are paying the former insurgents for that intelligence.

But while the coalition forces may pay for intelligence, they are determined not to pay insurgents simply to quit fighting. "This is not a ‘pay for don't play, pay for don't fight' sort of scenario," Kolenda said.

ISAF officials are at pains to stress that there is a difference between reintegration, which is aimed at low- and mid-level fighters, and reconciliation, which refers to political accommodation with senior insurgent leaders.

The officials are adamant that arranging political reconciliation is not their job. "That's the business of the government of Afghanistan, and we're absolutely not getting involved in that," Dutton said.