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Reforming the Taliban: US aims to teach Afghan fighters new livelihoods

A US military-run reintegration effort in Afghanistan aims to teach captured Taliban fighters how to earn a legal living upon release. Critics say the US program is premature and undermines the Afghan government.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / October 27, 2011

Afghan prisoners are seen through a wire fence in the Parwan detention facility near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Of 1,000 carefully vetted detainees who went through a reintegration program, only one is known to have returned to fighting, say US officials.

Dar Yasin/AP/File

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Bagram, Afghanistan

Down a back road, past old, still-active minefields and blown-out Soviet tanks, US military officials are trying to bring former insurgents back into the fold of the Afghan government.

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The US official who runs the program calls it "tactical detoxifying" – offering captured former foot soldiers a skill that could help them make a legal living once they are released. Since March, the Parwan Detention Center at Bagram Air Base near Kabul has offered beekeeping workshops, language labs, and tailoring classes.

Yet the process of reintegration has been fraught with suspicion and roadblocks.

Afghan efforts at reconciling with elements of the Taliban have virtually come off the rails since the September assassination of lead negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani. Moreover, Afghan critics say the US effort at Bagram is undermining the government's outreach.

Dividing the United States and Afghan governments are fundamentally different views about the Taliban. Is it a cohesive ideological movement that must be dealt with through its leaders, as the Afghans believe, or are the Taliban rank and file merely underemployed Afghans who will abandon the cause and thus contribute to the collapse of the insurgent group if taught proper job skills, as the US believes?

Either way, this program is an effort that US commanders would like to see gather steam. Doubts linger about what reintegration can accomplish until coalition forces gain the upper hand on the Afghan insurgency. But the reintegration of former Taliban fighters, commanders say, is crucial to a secure Afghanistan.

"Frankly, one of the key areas where we have to gain momentum in the coming weeks is reintegration," says Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and of US forces in eastern Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials say they expect US military pressure on the ground to aid them in the process by the end of this winter. But they acknowledge that, for now, the number of Taliban fighters willing to lay down their weapons remains modest.

Some 2,350 former fighters have pubicly joined the Afghan reintegration program, according to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The process is designed to be deliberate, says Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, director of ISAF's reintegration cell. "There's a vetting that has to be taken seriously. Some are genuine insurgents. Some are criminals. Some are freeloaders."

At times, interest in reintegration has outpaced the ability of the Af­ghan government to carry out these steps, holding up the process. Others complain that they laid down their arms but have received none of the benefits they were promised.

"I do know that we have a number who have expressed interest and as yet have not followed through for a number of reasons. Part of it is they have a single minister that is controlling the process," Allyn says. "So it is a process that is in need of more decentralization."

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