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.

Dar Yasin/AP/File
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.

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.

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."

The officials who run the Parwan Detention Center see it as part of the solution. In part, the program is intended to counteract the notorious reputation that Bagram's first prison – now being demolished – has for the abuses that took place there early in the war. Rehabilitation is the primary focus, though.

The program's size is modest – there are currently 276 prisoners in the program, out of the thousands being held by US forces. But US military officials hope to expand it in the months to come, as they work through the files of individual fighters.

Prison officials are primarily on the lookout for "simple farmers" and others who have taken up arms for cash, "the low-hanging fruit," says Col. David Draeger, chief of rehabilitation and reintegration at Combined Joint Interagency Task Force 435 at Parwan.

The key, he says, is to take what US military officials refer to as the "$10-a-day Taliban" – the one doing it just for the money – and "give him a skill, which cuts down on the possibility of him lashing out again."

Of those detainees in the program, more than 70 percent are illiterate. Most opt for reading and writing courses in their native Dari or Pashto, though some do take English courses as well, Draeger says.

The emphasis is on vocational skills that can lead to licit livelihoods. Detainees taking tailoring courses, for example, are permitted to send clothes they make back to their families. There are job-placement counselors at the facility to help prisoners find work.

Parwan officials are debating adding advanced vocational training – carpentry, electrical wiring – to the class offerings but say they worry about the threat of jailbreaks or violence that might accompany such additional training.

"What you're really talking about is small tools, and what you're worried about is the possibility of these getting back into the [prison] facility," Draeger says.

But the track record so far appears to be good. Of the 1,000 detainees who have been through the program and released, there has been only one known recidivist, according to Draeger.

The hope is that the program grows to become "a catalyst for a wider social movement for peace," says Jones. The progression from insurgent to productive citizen is perhaps the most difficult transformation to achieve, though. "The country has fracture lines all over the place," Jones says, "and huge deficits of trust."

The Parwan program itself is a point of some distrust between the US and Afghanistan. Members of the Afghan central government and the country's High Peace Council often warn that reaching out to fighters is angering insurgent leaders and undercutting chances of national reconciliation.

"I don't see any significant progress in the process of reconciliation," says Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban official and first deputy of the High Peace Council.

Efforts to bring lower-level fighters into the fold will be more effective after some agreement is reached with Taliban leaders, he says. In the meantime, he says, such programs are counterproductive. That's because these Afghan officials "see the Taliban as a much more unified body than perhaps we see them – who need to be dealt with as a recognized armed opposition," says Jones.

There are also "a lot of people who believe that reintegration can't happen on any greater scale at the moment – which is low-level, small groups – until you get some political traction," Jones adds. "And to a degree I would agree with that. The two are inextricably linked."

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