Reintegration and Reconciliation in Afghanistan: In What Order and at What Price?

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2010 Volume 31 Issue 1

The guns of the US-led military surge were blazing with renewed zeal in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province in February. But off the battlefield, much of the talk and not a few questions focused on the merits of reintegration and reconciliation. Would the escalated fighting be an effective route to the diplomacy that is essential to finally ending the war—that, in the words of Prime Minister Harper,1 will never be won? Could effective reintegration precede such reconciliation diplomacy and a ceasefire? Will reconciliation mean losing the gains made in human rights and civil liberties?

A new reintegration plan

In the current parlance of the Afghanistan conflict, reintegration is the wartime effort to persuade rank-and-file insurgents to quit fighting and lay down their arms in exchange for personal safety, immunity, and employment. Reconciliation is diplomacy that seeks to engage insurgency leaders in pursuit of a political settlement that will end the fighting (Mojumdar 2010). And, of course, many are hoping that the former can help to create favourable conditions for the latter.

The escalated fighting and the new reintegration plan are both pursued as war-fighting tactics – not so much to win the war as to set the insurgency back on its heels. A stalled insurgency, the reasoning goes, would create more favourable conditions for weaning fighters away from the insurgency and for inducing their leaders to seek negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners.

The reintegration of former combatants into society is an essential, and effective, post-conflict measure to stabilize a ceasefire and to consolidate peace, but as a wartime tactic to undermine a still vigorous insurgency it has no persuasive precedent. Extensive post-Cold War experience in demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration programs (DDR) offers few examples of wartime reintegration. There are examples of wartime reintegration of former child soldiers, but mainly in humanitarian efforts to rescue children, not as tactics to weaken adversaries.

Reintegration was, nevertheless, a key theme of the January 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan. There was acknowledgement that such efforts have failed to date, but one of the chief outcomes of the conference was an agreement to try again and try harder. Dramatically increased funding was promised. The conference thus welcomed “the plans of the Government of Afghanistan to offer an honorable place in society to those willing to renounce violence, participate in the free and open society and respect the principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution, cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and pursue their political goals peacefully.”

The international community also established a Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to finance the program (Afghanistan: The London Conference 2010, para 13).

Conversations in Kabul in the week preceding the conference did not elicit a lot of support for the view that rank-and-file insurgents are essentially mercenaries—fighting to earn a livelihood for their families, without really believing in the cause, and amenable to switching sides if the price is right. Instead, the prevailing view, from people anxious to see the insurgency end, including academics and civil society representatives, was that while fighters are in many cases tiring of the fight, neither their own convictions nor the social pressures in their communities incline them toward switching sides and joining those still largely regarded as their “enemy.” It is a common testimony of Afghans that few of those now in the insurgency will be at ease on the sidelines of the war, turning away from the enormous personal and communal sacrifices already made to live as wards of the very government and international forces that their own community views with undiminished suspicion.

The implication is that Afghanistan will ultimately have to follow the prevailing post-Cold War model for DDR in which reintegration follows reconciliation – that is, it follows a political process through which political leaders recognized by the insurgents, even if these are more local than national leaders, agree to integrate with the prevailing order. Only then will rank-and-file fighters in significant numbers lay down their arms. By design and by prevailing practice, DDR takes place after a ceasefire, not as a means of getting to a ceasefire.

That raises the question of the current status or prospects for political reconciliation efforts that could yield a ceasefire.

Prospects for reconciliation

The hope that intensified warfare will hasten the insurgents’ move to a negotiating table has to contend with the sobering reality that more than eight years of war, including continuing civilian deaths at the hands of international forces, have not only failed to set the insurgents back on their heels, but have witnessed the growth and spread of the insurgency to the point where the journalist, author, and expert on Afghan and Pakistani affairs, Ahmed Rashid (2010), reports that “the Afghan Taliban are now a countrywide movement.”

The word “reconciliation” appears only once in the 3,600-word communiqué issued at the end of the London Conference, and it appears not as a topic of the London discussions but in the context of acknowledging another conference—the summit meeting held by Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey in Istanbul, which declared support for “Afghan-led peace, reintegration and reconciliation efforts.”2

While President Hamid Karzai’s speech (2010) to the London conference made prominent reference to reconciliation, including his plan to create a “National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration,” the conference communiqué welcomed only a “national Peace and Reintegration Programme” (Para 13).

This conspicuous failure to promote reconciliation reflects a larger reluctance in the international community to fully embrace a diplomatic track for ending the conflict, although the Obama Administration has in general signaled its support for political accommodation.3 But many of those who are open to reconciliation in principle worry both about timing and about the human rights implications.

The timing argument easily becomes an argument against negotiations in principle, opposing talks with either an ascendant or a retreating Taliban. On the one hand, there is no point in talking to an ascendant Taliban because it will be disinclined to compromise; on the other hand, there is no need to seek compromise with a retreating Taliban.

The reluctance to negotiate that is linked to human rights concerns is more clearly rooted in questions of basic justice. Canadian Chris Alexander, the very effective former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan and former deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan, acknowledged in a recent public lecture in Waterloo, Ontario that the Bonn Agreement of 2001 was not a genuine peace agreement because the party that shortly before had controlled 95 per cent of the country (the Taliban) was not at the table. At the same time he explicitly rejected any negotiations leading to power-sharing. The Taliban record of extraordinary human rights abuses while in office, as well as their terrorist tactics since being driven out of office, disqualified them as partners in a new peace agreement.

That position is amplified by the noted Australian expert on Afghanistan, William Maley (2009), who said that, not only does talk of negotiating with the Taliban “send shivers down the spines of significant elements in the Afghan population, starting with Afghan women and members of ethnic and sectarian minorities,” but a deal with the Taliban would have additional catastrophic effects. It would take the air out of Afghanistan’s slow transition to modernity, it would lead to the rearming of anti-Taliban groups, and it would lead to sanctuary for Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan.

Similar reservations are also heard from Afghan professionals and urbanites in Kabul, genuinely fearful that the gains they have made in basic rights and liberties since 2001 would be entirely lost or drastically eroded in any political settlement that would give the Taliban and other insurgent groups a share of the power and an opportunity to reestablish elements of the draconian rule that characterized their regime of the 1990s.

Juan Cole of the Global American Institute reports on a survey that indicates that non-Pashtun communities are most wary of reconciliation with the Taliban, citing, among others, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazarah concerns that negotiations could lead to the restoration of the harsh conditions of Taliban rule. For example, while supporting reconciliation efforts in principle, the Hazarah-dominated Afghanistan People’s Islamic Unity Party issued a statement after the London Conference saying that “any type of reconciliation effort must fully respect Afghanistan’s Constitution and values such as democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, women’s rights, and Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic structure, political, religious, and cultural diversity.” Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah called for a national dialogue about reconciliation with the Taliban. “People want to know,” he said, “if they are going back to the Islamization of the Taliban government that was ousted in 2001” (Cole 2010).

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has recently also warned against reconciliation at the expense of accountability, citing Afghanistan’s “National Reconciliation, General Amnesty and National Stability Law.” The ICTJ (2010) says that the law offers “an amnesty for all involved in the Afghan conflict, regardless of whether they merely took up arms or were responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity. Amnesties are frequently part of peace negotiations, but international law forbids amnesties for serious war crimes.” Sari Kouvo, the head of ICTJ’s Afghanistan program, is quoted as saying that, “while reconciliation is needed to end the conflicts in Afghanistan, it should not be promoted by further entrenching a culture of impunity.”

Facing hard realities

It is clear that reconciliation, supported by effective reintegration programs, points the way out of the Afghanistan war, but two hard realities must be faced. First, reintegration must be recalibrated as a product or follow-on to a political settlement; reintegration is unlikely to be the means to a political settlement. Second, for a durable political settlement in Afghanistan to preserve and gradually expand the rights and freedoms of Afghans, the process leading to it will have to be comprehensive, including Afghans from all walks of life and communities, and guided by human rights law and basic principles of transitional justice.

An Amnesty International (2001) statement made just one month after the US-led attack applies equally well today:

There is as yet no indication of how long the military action will continue, but there are already discussions about the political future for Afghanistan after the conflict. It is essential that an agenda for human rights and social justice for all Afghans is developed on the basis of broad consultation and participation by the widest possible cross section of Afghan society. Solutions cannot be imposed from the outside and must be decided by the Afghan people. The UN has a substantive part to play in facilitating this process.

Amnesty’s call for “broad consultation and participation” is echoed in Abdullah Abdullah’s current call for a “national dialogue.” In the final stages of negotiations to end any protracted war, when the focus turns to exit strategies, negotiators are invariably tempted to cut deals, even if that means trading away commitments to inclusiveness and basic principles of justice. It is a temptation they can’t resist on their own – they need the guidance of a fully engaged and consulted population. That in turn means the international community now needs to become fully fixated on developing the mechanisms for engagement and consultation that will draw in all segments of Afghan society and earn the cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbours – in other words, a mechanism to meaningfully consult those whose future is on the line.



  1. “We are not going to ever defeat the insurgency,” Stephen Harper told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an interview that aired March 1, 2009. “Afghanistan has probably had—my reading of Afghanistan history—it’s probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind” ( 2009).
  2. The meeting, the “Istanbul Regional Summit on Friendship and Cooperation in the ‘Heart of Asia,’” pledged support for “Afghan-led peace, reintegration and reconciliation efforts,” and, notably, to work actively for “ending support wherever it occurs on each other’s territory for illegally-armed groups, parallel structures and illegal financing directed towards destabilizing Afghanistan or individual neighbors” (Afghanistan: The London Conference 2010, Para 28).
  3. “Washington’s new approach combines a readiness to negotiate and compromise (even with significant elements of the Taliban leadership) in order to end the war with a belief that it needs to do so from a position of clear military strength. Operation Moshtarak is the first major step in this military-diplomatic process” (Rogers 2010).


Afghanistan: The London Conference. 2010. Communiqué, January 28.

Amnesty International. 2001. Afghanistan: Making human rights the agenda. November 1. 2009. Canada’s Harper doubts Afghan insurgency can be defeated. March 1.

Cole, Juan. 2010. Afghan Minority Parties Unenthusiastic about Reconciliation with Taliban. Informed Comment, February 17.

International Center for Transitional Justice. 2010. ICTJ Statement on Afghanistan Amnesty Law. February 17.

Karzai, President Hamid. 2010. Opening Remarks, London Conference on Afghanistan, January 28.

Maley, William. 2009. States of Conflict: A case study on state-building in Afghanistan. Institute for Public Policy Research, November.

Mojumdar, Aunohita. 2010. Afghanistan: Decoding Reintegration and Reconciliation. Eurasia Insight, February 9.

Rashid, Ahmed. 2010. What will it take to talk? The Globe and Mail, January 27.

Rogers, Paul. 2010. Afghanistan: propaganda of the deed., February 11.

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