In December 2019, I submitted an op-ed to a political magazine, which was titled “What’s the Next Step in Afghanistan? Dealing with 150,000 Taliban Fighters.” The review process took two months and the reviewer suggested an update, which I did not undertake. It might be easy to say with hindsight what had to be done in Afghanistan before the US withdrawal, but I wrote this post without any hindsight. It relies on my research on Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs and my visits to Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. Here is a revised version of that piece to answer three main questions: (1) Could the United States in its two decades of war in the country somehow deal with the Talibs? (2) Did the US really fail to anticipate the fall of the Afghan military? (3) How did the Afghans envision their future?
President Trump, on a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving Day 2019, announced that new talks had commenced with the Taliban, without mentioning the scope or prospects of the renewed negotiations. Details had not emerged of a prospective peace deal because the administration did not have a clear idea of what power sharing should look like in post-war Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Papers published by the Washington Post had portrayed a bleak collage of mission creep, indecisiveness, and failed policy, perhaps encouraging an end to the war.
Despite the previous failure of peace negotiations with the Taliban, however, the US was already planning ways to handle 60,000 full-time and 90,000 seasonal Taliban fighters, with or without a peace agreement. DDR programs have become a cornerstone of peacebuilding efforts both during and after conflict, designed to reduce chances of rearmament and resumed conflict. To this end, DDR involves reintegrating ex-combatants socially, politically, and economically, so they lose incentive for returning to fighting, even if the country experiences renewed conflict. A DDR program is considered successful if ex-combatants view re-participation in conflict negatively, acquire trust in the country’s non-rebel political institutions, and reintegrate socially and economically in society. Ex-combatants obviously show attitudinal differences after the DDR process: some start to trust the government and acquire a proclivity for peace, while others do not.
Planning a DDR program, the US military had started disaggregating individual fighters from the rebel group – “a Talib” from “the Taliban” – recognizing the potential for an inclusive Afghan military and society if a portion of Talibs demobilized or joined state institutions, like the police and the military. That strategy, nevertheless, did not find its way to the political rhetoric surrounding Afghanistan, one which drew a hard line between “Afghans” and “the Taliban,” a rhetoric that news organizations and the Biden administration still employ.
Withdrawing from Afghanistan with the hope that 150,000 fighters somehow disappear into the post-conflict informal economy of the country was but a dream. The vast literature on postconflict peacebuilding agrees that rebel combatants or ex-combatants are the first to join a rebel army in case of renewed conflict. The dream of a peaceful Afghanistan after a US withdrawal might have materialized if the US had restructured the Afghan military, incorporating Taliban fighters, instead of leaving them out. Especially when dealing with such a large number of rebel fighters, a peace agreement does not herald peace unless the combatants are either absorbed into the military or are disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated into society. A majority of the full-time Taliban fighters had to be incorporated into the national army and police force of Afghanistan. The US strategy of keeping the Taliban out of the Afghan military was akin to the European divide-and-control rule in the colonies: selecting the more “civilized” of the colonial subjects to rule over the less “civilized” ones.
DDR a Reality?
The problem with disarming and demobilizing all Taliban fighters was creating alternative lives for them: a country with a GDP per capita of $520 and a GDP growth rate of 1% is highly unlikely to be capable of providing the means for reintegration to combatants that have been fighting for some eighteen years and might have little familiarity with life as a civilian.
Was the US equipped to undertake this task? International actors have led several programs to reform the security sector of states emerging from internal conflict. British forces restructured the military of post-independence Zimbabwe, creating a black-and-white army consisting of black rebel forces and the military men of Ian Smith, after the two forces had engaged in a bloody fight for independence of Rhodesia from white-majority rule. South Africa and the United Nations jointly trained and reintegrated about 25,000 former rebels into the military and 10,000 into the new police force of Burundi after a ten-year ethnically driven civil war. Similarly, Britain, France, and Portugal oversaw the formation of an army of 30,000 men in post-war Mozambique, divided equally between government and rebel forces. In all of these cases, peace has survived for a decade or longer, only because third-party intervention institutionalized power sharing in the security sector.
The US and NATO have been managing the Afghan military for almost two decades; it is hard to think of another third party with the know-how or experience to take up the colossal task of restructuring and professionalizing the security sector. The US government continued to provide close to $5 billion a year in security sector assistance to Afghanistan, an amount that was projected to remain steady in the future, unless the US troops withdrew. A security sector reform program would have cost the US a fraction of this amount. A previous disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program with 63,000 Afghan Mujahidin over six years cost $140 million. An inclusive program that integrated half of the combatants into the Afghan military and demobilized the other half might have taken few years but would have been very cost-effective, considering the alternative.
Did we Really not Anticipate the Fall?
In the two decades since 2001, the US financing of Afghan military had been limited to operations against the Taliban. The high pace of military operations now and in the past years hasn’t allowed for real and sustainable capacity building or institutionalization of the Afghan military. According to a report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, created by Congress in 2008 to provide independent and objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects, the military sales process to the Afghan military has limited its institutional development.
Providing advanced weapons and management systems to a largely illiterate and undereducated force without also providing the appropriate training and institutional infrastructure created long-term dependencies, required increased U.S. financial support, and hampered efforts to make the ANDSF [Afghan National Security Forces] self-sustaining.
The Afghan military still depends on the US for foreign military sales processes. After 9/11, Congress created new authorities for the Department of Defense to make requests for military equipment on behalf of countries that did not have the capacity to request it themselves. Since 2011, the US has generated the requirements for equipment, filled the requirements, and financed the requirements for Afghanistan, without including Afghans in the process. According to another report by the Special Inspector General, the Afghan military is still not capable of assuming ownership of the requirement generation process and there is no plan for it to do assume this responsibility. If the Afghan military still relies on the US for its basic procurement needs, it is hard to imagine it capable of restructuring itself without American help.
If we had offered the Taliban a deal that included power sharing, DDR, and security sector reform, would they have been able to accept and keep their rank-and-file committed to the peace deal? There is a pitfall in engaging on comprehensive issues with rebels that had viewed the US as their archenemy for twenty years. Factions in the Taliban could have splintered from the main body of the group, a phenomenon that was well underway since Taliban leaders started negotiating with the Americans. Even when groups negotiate with third parties with a unified front, they sometimes break up due to lack of trust in the government to uphold the peace agreement and the opportunity cost of laying down arms.
In 2016, the US government encouraged, indeed pushed for, a peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). Once signed, it was seen as a rare victory for US diplomacy and was set to hail an era of democracy and peace in Colombia and one free of cocaine in the US. However, some FARC fronts never agreed to the peace agreement and did not disarm. Another 5-10% of those that had started the DDR program rearmed in August 2019. Similarly, under pressure from the US, in December 2012, more than 300 commanders of the Free Syrian Army assembled in Antalya, Turkey, to form the Supreme Military Council in order to unify the ranks of the disparate battalions. The Council, however, soon fell apart, leaving the arms provided by the US and other third parties in the hands of extremists.
Talibs or the Taliban?
I want to end this post with a more humane consideration of the Taliban. As we watch on our TV and computer screens the bearded and turbaned men we collectively call “the Taliban” take over Afghanistan’s capital, we tend to forget that each of these fighters, as an individual, has been facing the challenge of survival for two decades. The image might not come to us easily, but many Afghan writers have chronicled the inner dilemmas of “a Talib” and his job as a revolutionary fighter. Assef Soltanzadeh, the refugee Afghan writer published two short story volumes in Iran: We Disappear in Flight (2000) and You Who Are Here, This Is Not Your Land (2007), writing of Talib men who shaved their beards when they fell in love with women who listened to music and let their hair loose.
While US foreign policy and counterterrorism take little inspiration from literary works, we should remember that the future Afghans hoped for with the US intervention in 2001 did not involve a thick line drawn between the Taliban and non-Taliban sides of the country; rather, it was one in which an individual Talib was seen as a potentially formidable member of the police or the military, or one who would go through DDR, fall in love, cut his beard, and listen to music. The US did not need to reconfigure the Afghan nation; it only had to erase the distinctions drawn between rebel and non-rebel, something it grimly failed at. We called them – not Talibs – but THE Taliban for twenty years and now they have regrouped after a simple call to take back the country that cast them as outsiders.