The Afghan 'peace jirga' is under way - but reconciliation will be difficult when support for the insurgency is still so strong
"They don't want peace and they don't care about the people who have suffered; they only want more power." That was the verdict of an Afghan victims' rights activist I spoke to recently. She was referring not to the Taliban, but the Afghan government.
Afghans desperately long for security and, in the wake of conflict, reintegration programmes can have positive political, social and economic outcomes. But in Afghanistan, many feel that newly proposed plans for the reintegration of so-called "upset brothers" are fraught with risk and contradiction.
Experience shows that the vast majority of successful reintegration processes are conducted only after peace talks have started or the parties to the conflict have agreed to lay down their arms. But there is no genuine peace process in Afghanistan. On the contrary, international and Afghan military forces have commenced operations in Kandahar and insurgents have recently announced a new campaign attacking the government, international forces and their "proxies". The political arm of the UN, which could in theory play a critical role in brokering talks with all parties to the conflict, is still largely perceived to be aligned with the pro-government side.
General McChrystal, the commander of Nato operations in the region, has described the aim of reintegration as the "peeling away" of Taliban footsoldiers. Similarly, a government official from Kandahar commented recently that substantive negotiations or sharing power with insurgent groups was out of the question: "No way. They are a defeated force, they are running, they are hiding, they are defeated." Yet insurgents either control or hold significant influence in more than half of the country and violence has nearly doubled compared with the same period last year.
Insurgents routinely target anyone and anything associated with the government or international military forces and have already exacted deadly revenge on those who join the "other side". On average, two Afghans were executed every three days last year, many due to their perceived association with the government or international military forces. So what will happen to Afghans who agree to "reintegrate"?
Many Afghans, particularly those who have lost loved ones or endured torture and abuse, are angry that reintegration plans will grant amnesty to all so-called "upset brothers" who agree to lay down their arms and accept the constitution.
Over the past three decades, Afghans have endured unimaginable suffering. Oxfam research found that nearly one in five Afghans were tortured over the past three decades of conflict, three in four were forced to leave their homes, and one in 10 were unjustly imprisoned. Of the Afghans we spoke to, 99% had not received any compensation or even a simple apology.
Afghans want genuine reconciliation but they also want an opportunity to come to terms with the past. In many areas of the country, Oxfam and its partners support local councils, or shuras, to help resolve disputes and heal the wounds of conflict. But many Afghans fear that amnesty without at least an acknowledgment of past abuses - by all parties to the conflict - is likely to lead to continued mistrust, anger, impunity and criminality.
It's not just the proposed amnesty that is fraught with risk. The new plan also seeks to use humanitarian and development assistance as an incentive to motivate fighters to lay down their arms. After a conflict ends, such programming often plays an instrumental role in helping communities to rebuild and in securing the peace. But in a country with such low development indicators as Afghanistan, where on average 14 children die every half-hour of largely preventable causes, offering impoverished communities aid contingent on their ability to produce "ex-combatants" is unethical and misguided.
Inevitably, making aid conditional in this way is likely to lead some to invent a former life as a combatant in order to secure aid.
The Afghan New Beginnings Programme, which focused on reintegration and demobilisation from 2003 through 2006, tried an approach much like the one currently being proposed. Only five communities participated in the New Beginnings development projects, similar to those in the new plan, and many who were ultimately "demobilised" turned out to never have even been combatants in the first place.
The distribution of aid in this way also risks exacerbating distortions in the allocation of aid as reintegration is likely to be focused mainly on insecure areas. The majority of aid from troop-contributing countries flows into insecure areas of the country to "win hearts and minds", and those who live in extremely poor, more secure areas pay the penalty for peace. In fact, much of the new draft reintegration plan looks just like more of the same.
The underlying premise of these efforts - that fighters' loyalty can be secured with aid and amnesty - overlooks the reasons why many support the insurgency. According to Oxfam's research, nearly half of all Afghans surveyed believe that the corruption and ineffectiveness of the government is a major factor driving the conflict.
Unless these fundamental grievances are addressed and accompanied by genuine efforts to achieve an enduring peace, such initiatives risk perpetuating conflict rather than alleviating it. Now more than ever, Afghans need greater protection from the escalating conflict, assistance that meets genuine humanitarian and development needs, and a strategy, adhered to by all belligerents, that addresses the drivers of the conflict and the legacy of the past.
By Ashley Jackson - Head of Policy & Advocacy in Afghanistan for Oxfam
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