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New plan to woo Afghan Taliban could harm villages

Kabul is proposing to reward villages whose Afghan Taliban fighters surrender by disbursing cash through councils that already oversee aid money. Critics say that would make the councils Taliban targets.

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Jones says one of the goals was to avoid creating "additional or parallel" government structures. The councils are already trained to take government money and spending it on a prioritized list of projects.

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There's no need to reinvent the wheel "where they have already developed a sensible list of projects," he argues. "One of the red lines for us is not to create existing things.”

The councils would not be asked to "tackle the higher level political questions" involved in reintegrating insurgents, according to the draft document.

Not a done deal

Still, all this sounds worrisome to Mohammad Tariq Ismati, the government's executive director for the NSP program.

"The NSP is already loaded with a lot of concerns," including local development and community conflict resolution, he says. "We cannot risk it by adding such a sensitive and politicized process."

The plan, he says, is trying to turn the NSP into a tool of counterinsurgency by helping stabilize villages and win the residents over to the side of the government. While that's never been the reason for the NSP, new data suggest it is achieving some of those results.

A donor-funded study led by Harvard University researcher Andrew Beath looked at a random sample of 500 villages, half with NSP and half without. Villages with an NSP project gave slightly higher marks to the Afghan president, provincial and district leaders, and the US military. NSP villages did not see security improve, but the perception of safety went up by four percentage points.

"The process of mobilizing the community and widening the participation of villages is itself contributing to stability and security in localities," says Mr. Ismati. But "using the NSP as a model for counterinsurgency will put the model at risk."

He is confident that the draft plan can be changed before it's finalized. But he is unhappy that the proposal has already created unrest among NGOs such as Afghan Aid that work on NSP projects.

Representatives from the World Bank, which oversees the funding of the NSP, say that using the NSP councils will likely be edited out because of the harm it would do to the program.

"If the facilitating partners [NGOs] are not keen on doing this – and many have ideological problems with it – it's not going to work," says Qazi Azmat Isa, a senior rural development specialist with the World Bank in Kabul.

But General Jones gave no indication that the pushback on the idea was likely to sink it. The decision will have to come from the Afghan government.

Plan B?

Few alternatives exist beyond the NSP village councils to receive the reintegration money. Giving it directly to the ex-combatants would give people incentives to join and quit the insurgency for the rewards. At the village level, few other credible leaders exist, and district-level government in Afghanistan is famously corrupt and ineffective.

The plan includes other money to provide jobs around the country through various Afghan government ministries, including new engineering and construction corps and an agricultural conservation corps.

"Young men from the community of fighting age can be given preference to deny recruits for the insurgency," reads the draft plan. Recruits for the conservation corps would, instead of picking up a gun, be planting trees.

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