US soldier talks to Afghan villagersPeace is beginning to flower across Afghanistan with about 5% of Taliban fighters nationwide already surrendering, to re-join civil society through the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program, or APRP, paid for by donors like the United States and Saudi Arabia.

“So far, we’ve got about 1,740 former fighters (five percent of the estimated total) who have formally joined the reintegration process. On top of this, the High Peace Council has at least another 40 to 45 groups in negotiation across the country — maybe as many as another 2,000 fighters. And much of this activity has emerged literally in the past four months or so.”

So said British Army Major General Phil Jones, of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who has been working on the nascent peace-building effort since it started almost a year ago when a 30 page strategy document was signed by presidential decree following the convening of a 70-member National Consultative Peace Jirga in Kabul.

As the US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan are preparing for a scheduled drawdown next month, President Hamid Karzai’s administration has stepped up its efforts to win over Taliban insurgents and the plan, with the full backing of the United States, seems to be working. Insurgents, including key commanders, are surrending every day to the authorities, pledging to obey the Constitution and renouncing violence.

In May, General Jones was in the Baghdis province up in the northwest of Afghanistan — a poor and remote province with plenty of challenges in water, health, education and infrastructure. It’s also had a growing insurgency problem. Six months ago, the span of government control and influence was probably just a few square kilometers around the capital.

Jones talked about the area’s transformation during a video press conference for reporters at the Pentagon. He said that through a combination of counterinsurgency and security work, including the removal of some key insurgent leaders during raids, the security zone began to expand quite rapidly. The governor of the province, who he described as “highly experienced and able”, was then able to reach out to alienated communities.

“On the back of those security gains and on the back of some really excellent political outreach by the governor, we now have something like 400 armed men who have reintegrated over the past four months or so,” said Jones. “And frankly, the security situation in Baghdis has changed out of all recognition.”

“So we sat there in Baghdis with about 40 of these ex-insurgent commanders to discuss the mutual challenges of peace. Four months ago, we’d have been fighting.” He added, “Frankly, those are powerful moments out here.”

US soldier walks with Afghan childReintegration opportunities, which are supposed to include weekly pay ($80, according to one source) and a job rebuilding communities, have been quickly accepted in the northern part of the country, as expected. Now, it is gaining traction across the nation, with reintegration events now happening in 15 provinces and emerging in another five or six.

“About 83 former members of the Taliban reintegrated in Laghman province in the east. And over the past two days, we’ve had groups from Helmand in the south, Takhar in the north, and some other small groups from Baghdis in the west join the program.”

APRP was created with one goal in mind, to bring peace to Afghanistan by bringing insurgents back to their communities, with their honor and dignity intact, and work together to try and rebuild Afghanistan.

APRP provides support to armed groups and their communities who wish to reintegrate. It begins with outreach and confidence-building and progresses through demobilization of armed groups and community recovery. Very firmly an Afghan process, its prime focus is on the communities and grievance resolution, not simply the armed groups themselves.

Provinces are building capacity with their own provincial peace councils, local versions of the high peace council in Kabul. And actually, every province, but one or two, now have their peace councils in place — 20 or 30 elders of the community from all sectors, both alienated and pro-government coming together to sew together the pieces of a broken society.

A fund set up to finance the peace plan started with $141 million in donations from a large number of nations, the U.S. being the most generous to date.

Eight priority provinces were targeted as foundation stones to support the building of peace, but General Jones says the demand has completely outstripped original expectations, and so the challenge is to build it quickly, nationwide, but with all the transparency possible.

Expressions of interest by fighter groups to join the program has picked up considerably since the killing of Osama bin Laden, but Jones thinks the program had been building momentum on its own.

“There’s also a growing narrative, particularly in the south, of people accepting the fact that they’ve been active in a false jihad and they’ve been fighting against an Islamic nation and now the time is right to step out of that and rejoin the nation.”

Afghan family has new opportunities to live in peaceThe governors are asking General Jones for patience. They say the armed groups and their weapons will come, but they’ve got to first get on with some real peace building to, to underpin the process.  The peace building has to come through the elders, through the spiritual leaders, through the communities, such that they’re creating a much more stable and secure environment, into which they can reintegrate the fighters.

“A year ago when I was here, there was quite a lot of gloom and despondency across the country, and there was this sense that strategically we were in a bad place and the Taliban had the momentum and the initiative,” said Jones. “And of course the surge has completely reversed the balance of confidence there.”

“This time last year the Afghans were really concerned about July this year, and there was this growing sense of anxiety about troop withdrawals but all that sort of stuff has very much gone away. It’s not to say that it’s gone completely.  Of course the Afghans are nervous.  They’re right to be so in terms of how this is going to pan out.  But there is also behind that anxiety a growing sense of thirst for sovereignty. You know, they feel it is about time that they make compromises and take responsibility for many of these processes. People have far more confidence in the future than they did a year ago.”

“Afghan leaders across the country are really rolling up their sleeves and doing some really courageous and bold things to make this go, giving me inspiration day by day.”

“There have been attempts like this in the past that haven’t delivered what people wanted, but there are huge opportunities out there that are there to be seized, and my goodness, there are some terrific Afghans leading this who are going out of their way to seize them.  And you’re starting to see this emerge in some really quite challenging conditions, and that gives you hope.”

“We’ve got to be careful not to be unrealistically optimistic. But we in ISAF are seeing a lot of potential for this process to expand and accelerate as it begins to have impact on many communities right across Afghanistan. And, frankly, despite the huge challenges of mobilizing structures and resources, it is one of the most exciting Afghan initiatives I’ve seen here in recent years.”

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