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US, Afghanistan at Odds Over Reconciliation and Reintegration

There is widespread talk about reconciliation and reintegration in Afghanistan. But they are very different terms and they are viewed very differently in Washington and Kabul. This report explains how differences in terminology translate into policy differences about the Afghan insurgency.

At the recent London conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke of reconciliation with the Taliban. But U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said the United States favors reintegration of low-ranking Taliban members into Afghan society, not political reconciliation with its leaders.

Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who chaired the Obama administration's review of Afghan policy last year, says the interlocking, but distinct, terms underscore clear differences between Washington and Kabul.

"I think there is some tension here between those who are looking for a grand political deal, some kind of compromise between Mullah Omar and the Afghan government, and those whose ambitions, I think, are much more realistic, but much simpler, which is not to try to make a grand deal with the Taliban, but to see if we cannot expose fissures and contradictions within it," Riedel said.

The fact that many diplomats, journalists and academics have been using reconciliation and reintegration interchangeably irritates Ambassador Holbrooke.

"Reintegration is a program to give people fighting with the Taliban a chance to lay down their arms, renounce al-Qaida, renounce violence and participate in the political process of Afghanistan," Holbrooke said. "Reconciliation is a reference to the possibility of discussions with the leadership of the Taliban about bringing a peaceful end to the war. This is what has gotten confused in people's minds."

U.S. Institute for Peace Afghanistan-Pakistan Director Alexander Thier says the Obama administration wants to lure rank-and-file Taliban fighters away from the movement with economic opportunity.

"The idea is that there is a decent pool of people - and whether it is 70 percent or 30 percent, I do not know how you determine that - who could be brought off the battlefield, if you deal not with the withdrawal of all international forces, etcetera, as the Taliban leadership, demands, but you deal with their basic immediate concerns that they want a job, they want security, that they do not want corruption," Thier said.

The reintegration policy is predicated on the assumption, voiced by Ambassador Holbrooke and Vice President Joe Biden, that as much as 70 percent of the Taliban fight for non-ideological reasons, such as local grievances or economic hardship, and therefore are susceptible to incentives. But there is no publicly available data that confirm that figure.

Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says it might have been possible to peel off lower-ranking Taliban fighters early in the conflict. But he says a new generation of younger Taliban that uses suicide bombing as a tactic has changed the dynamic of the conflict.

"It is interesting that even now the American leadership seems much more concerned with reintegration than reconciliation," Goodson said. "I think that it does reflect certain assumptions about Afghan society and about regional geopolitics that may not be entirely correct. The situation has changed now to where I do not think it is possible to talk meaningfully about reintegration without some degree of reconciliation."

President Karzai's call for reconciliation with the Taliban leadership is rooted in the realization that the United States and its allies will leave Afghanistan someday, but the Taliban will still be around.

Bruce Riedel theorizes that Mr. Karzai is holding out the olive branch to the Taliban leadership in the belief they will not take it because they think they are winning.

"Karzai, I think, is a little bit more clever than appearances suggest here. I think that he knows that it is very popular in Afghanistan to say that he is open to negotiations with anyone," Riedel said. "But I think that he also knows Mullah Omar pretty well, and he knows that Mullah Omar is not really interested in negotiations with him. So I think that what he is putting out here is an offer of negotiations with a certain degree of confidence that Mullah Omar and the hard core of the Taliban are not likely to pick that up."

Although the United States says it does not support reaching out to the Taliban leadership, the United Nations does. Outgoing U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide met recently with some Taliban leaders, although details are sketchy and the Taliban deny the meeting occurred.

The United Nations recently lifted its sanctions against five former Taliban officials. Analysts say this gives weight to Kabul's reconciliation efforts.