Failure to reintegrate former Taliban fighters and other combatants in Afghanistan could prompt them to join terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, according to a new watchdog report.
“If ex-combatants are not accepted by their communities or are unable to find a new livelihood, they may be vulnerable to recruitment by criminal groups or terrorist organizations like the Islamic State Khorasan, the local branch of the Islamic State active in eastern Afghanistan,” the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report released Thursday.
This is just one of multiple issues plaguing reintegration efforts of approximately 60,000 full-time Taliban fighters and 90,000 seasonal fighters in Afghanistan — efforts that have proven ineffective in the past.
Since 2002, the U.S. has poured approximately $65 million into a series of reintegration programs. But none of them “succeeded in enabling any significant number of ex-combatants to socially and economically rejoin civil society,” the report said.
“Programs specifically targeting Taliban insurgents did not weaken the insurgency to any substantial degree or contribute meaningfully to parallel reconciliation efforts,” SIGAR’s report said.
Reintegrating the Taliban and other combatants in a cornerstone to securing sustainable peace in Afghanistan, according to John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan.
Additionally, he said Thursday at a United States Institute for Peace event that previous reintegration efforts have fallen flat because of the absence of a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that addresses the reintegration of former fighters.
“Without this [agreement], if fighters join a reintegration program, they and their families face enormous risks of retribution,” Sopko said. “And during a war, it’s very difficult if not impossible [at] times to provide protection for them. That risk of retribution — and insecurity more generally — was a key reason that past reintegration programs did not succeed in Afghanistan.”
As a result, SIGAR recommends that the U.S. hold off on backing a reintegration effort until a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is secured that takes into account reintegrating former combatants. Even so, Congress should organize plans for reintegration right away, rather than waiting until discussions to conclude.
The watchdog also recommended the U.S. not support a reintegration program unless violence drops in Afghanistan, and until proper oversight is implemented.
However, even if a peace deal is arranged, Sopko warned there still could be problems. For example, Afghanistan’s suffering economy and 23 percent unemployment rate could pose challenges to reintegration.
“For fighters to come in from the cold and rejoin society, they will need access to a stable job, or they then may return to fighting or enter one of Afghanistan’s many more profitable, but illicit economic sectors, such as organized crime, kidnapping, and narcotics trafficking,” Sopko said.
Another factor to consider is the segment of more than 2.7 million Afghan refugees who are now primarily in Pakistan or Iran. In the aftermath of a potential peace agreement, these refugees would likely return to Afghanistan, placing an additional burden on Afghanistan’s job market.
“Adding tens of thousands of armed Taliban soldiers as well as their families and supporters to the mix would only exacerbate the challenge,” Sopko said.
Such an economic situation could provide a recruitment opportunity for terrorist groups like IS-K, Sopko said.
SIGAR also said reintegration efforts must also focus on other militants from state-aligned militias and other groups. Not doing so would inspire the Taliban to reject reintegration efforts, SIGAR warned.
Given these challenges, SIGAR recommended that the U.S. install a head agency or office to spearhead these efforts. A lack of such an institution has contributed to confusion about reintegration goals, the report said.
The watchdog also noted successful reintegration will depend on economic support from the U.S. and others among the donor community who are partnering with the World Bank to arrange financial and technical support for Afghanistan and its economy. Proper oversight must couple such support, the report cautioned.
Peace negotiations between the U.S., Taliban, and Afghan government have been put on the back burner after President Donald Trump called off a covert meeting with the Taliban and Afghan leaders at Camp David.
Trump said that he canceled the meeting after a U.S. soldier and 11 others were killed in a Taliban car bomb attack, and has since said negotiations with the Taliban are “dead.”
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spearheaded peace negotiations for more than a year, is slated to provide a classified briefing to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday. He is also expected to provide a public hearing later on Thursday.
In addition to a review of thousands of pages of public and private documents and academic material, SIGAR’s report was based off of 51 interviews with current and former U.S., Afghan, and other government officials and academics. The report was launched 14 months ago, Sopko said.