5,000 Afghan 'militants' have surrendered - but are they real?

Officials say the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program has brought stability to several areas. But critics say the real anti-government fighters aren't participating.   

As part of an effort to end the Afghan war peacefully, the Afghan government developed a program to get low- and mid-level fighters to lay down their weapons and reintegrate with society.

With more than 5,000 individuals reintegrated so far, many Afghan and international officials say the program has helped bring stability to several areas.

Still, the program, which is almost two years old, may possess a fatal flaw: It’s unclear if everyone who reintegrates is actually an insurgent. Many Afghans say they worry that a number of locals are pretending to be insurgents to take advantage of the reintegration program’s incentives.

“This process has failed. It is not successful. There’s been no clear definition of who the enemy is and that’s why things are not clear,” says Mehdi, a member of parliament from Baghlan, who like many Afghans only has one name. “It’s a shame to admit that this is a problem, but unfortunately it’s a really bad thing that is happening all over Afghanistan.”

Those who reintegrate agree to renounce violence, cut ties with insurgent and terrorist groups, and support the Afghan constitution. In exchange, they receive a transitional stipend of $120 per month for three months. Communities who then agree to accept re-integrees are eligible for development grants.

The program is Afghan-run, but financially supported by international donors. In 2012 it received $123.7 million from 12 international donors, with Japan and the US shouldering the lion’s share of the cost, $52 million and $50 million respectively.

The example of 'insurgent' Wali

Earlier this month in Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan Province, Commander Abdul Wali and about 40 of his fighters became some of the nation’s most recent re-integrees. Mr. Wali, however, admits he was never much of an insurgent.

During Afghanistan’s civil war, he battled the Taliban, fighting under the storied Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. An ethnic Tajik, he is an opponent of the extremist group, which draws about 95 percent of its fighters from Afghanistan’s Pashtun community.

After the US invasion, he became a district police commander in Baghlan’s remote Firing district, a position he enjoyed until about two years ago when he was involved in a shooting that left a civilian dead. Mr. Wali says he was innocent, and a police investigation confirmed his side of the story – that the victim died fighting in a local feud.

The case never went to trial and Wali says that he stepped down as police commander and broke ties with the government amid mounting accusations. In protest, about 40 men from his community joined with him to form an opposition group. Unlike most insurgents, Wali and his men say they never fired a shot, nor did they plan to. Most people in the community agree they were never a threat to locals or international forces.

“We just cut relations with the government. We didn’t try to help the government, but we didn’t try to kill Muslims, send suicide bombers, or place IEDs. We did nothing,” says Wali.

Wali did act as the government in his area, settling local disputes and addressing any other community problems. Though villagers could have turned to district government officials, it’s common throughout Afghanistan for locals to seek out tribal elders like Wali rather than the government, especially in remote areas.

But Wali’s men lacked a clear agenda. “We didn’t have any goals,” says Tahrir Hamidi, who was unemployed when he joined Wali. “When we left the government, I didn’t think that we’d be away from the government for too long, and I believed that we would not fight against the government.”

Fresh-faced and recently showered, Mr. Hamidi, like most of Wali’s followers, does not look like the normal, weathered opposition fighter who has spent years living in the mountains. He says that when he was supporting Wali, he continued to do what he’d done most of the time he was unemployed, spending most of his time at home.

“We were solving people’s problems, but we could not build anything,” he says. “We were not able to asphalt roads for the people. We were not able to build a school or a clinic for them. There was no rebuilding in my area. That’s why I decided to come back to the government.”

At Wali’s reintegration ceremony, local reporter Obaidullah Jahesh says he was taken aback by the amount of ordinary people who were among the supposed insurgents. As reporter covering only Baghlan Province, he knows a number of people in the community and he immediately spotted a teacher and several students among those “militants” reintegrating.

‘It’s completely fake’

“It’s completely a fake process,” he says. He and his fellow reporters have had many similar experiences at other reintegration ceremonies, he says, adding that he thinks it actually hurts the peace process, “the insurgents see this sort of corruption and it strengthens their resolve not to join the government,” he says.

Now not only will Wali and his fighters receive a check for three months, the local government has also promised to try to find jobs for them. And the possibility of a development grant has inspired hopes that reconstruction projects will finally reach their area.

Given that many in Baghlan still question Wali’s involvement in the shooting, his case strikes a particular chord among Afghans who accuse the program of offering criminals a way to escape justice.

The reintegration program does offer amnesty to insurgents for actions they committed while opposing the government, however, it is not designed to offer forgiveness to common criminals.

Stories of people with questionable insurgent ties like Wali are common, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine who is telling the truth.

Nearly two years ago, a Pakistani man now believed to be an ordinary shopkeeper managed to dupe international forces into believing he was one of the top Taliban leaders, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, and he was ready to begin peace talks.

Optimistic international forces

Still, British Maj. Gen. David Hook, director of the Force Reintegration Cell for the International Security Assistance Force, says he is confident in the program and its vetting process.

Prior to reintegrating, applicants are screened at the local level and then passed along to officials in Kabul for final approval. General Hook says Afghans turn away a number of applicants, which he says is the result of a robust and effective vetting process. 

“I think it would be slightly inappropriate to think that every single individual who has entered the program is actually a bona fide insurgent, but, from my view, the Afghans own the vetting process, it’s the Afghans who make the decisions, and the Afghans are comfortable that those they have in are insurgents,” says Hook. “There are occasions when individuals want to reconcile where they don’t want to admit the things that they’ve done against the government.”

The program only became nationwide in the last six or seven months, he points out. He says he expects results to improve, especially as Afghan forces take control of more areas and foreign troops withdraw, giving insurgents opposed to international forces a reason to reintegrate.

Officials say that Wali, and others like him are an important part of the peace process.

“We know that we didn’t have any threat from them. It was clear. They were ruling their area… We didn’t want that, we wanted the government to do that. This is why we wanted them to reintegrate,” says Maj. Gen. Mel Alhaj Asadullah Sherzad, the chief of police in Baghlan Province. If they didn’t get Afghans like Wali who oppose the government to reintegrate, they could be used by insurgents, he says.

The race for influence

General Sherzad adds that while Baghlan has few insurgents, in the past year he managed to use the reconciliation process to regain control of an area that had fallen under militant control.

And although officials recognize that many of the hard-line Taliban and insurgents are unlikely to reintegrate with the government, they say the reintegration of even inactive insurgents like Wali is critical because they could be used by insurgents.

“If the government doesn’t go to an area, then definitely the enemy will come to that area and use it for their own purposes,” says Maulvi Sarjuddin Seerat, the head of the High Peace Council in Baghlan.

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