What Is 'the Re-Integree' and Why Is It America's Great Hope for Afghanistan?

U.S. and NATO officials are championing a program to re-integrate Taliban fighters back into society.

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Former militants learn about electrical work in a classroom at a de-radicalization center in Pakistan. Similar programs are opening in Afghanistan. / Reuters

No, "re-integree" is not really a word in English, but among the U.S. and NATO officials who are trying to wrench Afghanistan into something like a manageable shape before they leave, it's become a critical one. A relatively new program to reintegrate Afghan Taliban and other insurgents into society may, in fact, be one of the most hopeful routes to a successful--or at least less than disastrous--U.S. withdrawal in 2014.

Despite all the headlines about getting high-level Taliban to the peace table in Qatar (where the Taliban have gingerly set up an office but are balking at serious negotiations), a much better prospect for neutralizing the insurgents may lie with village-level efforts at inducing low-ranking fighters and commanders to surrender arms and rejoin their communities.

The strategy, in other words, is to hollow out the Taliban army even as its top commanders enjoy relative security across the border in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Given the recalcitrance of the Pakistanis in rolling up what they consider their Islamist allies, that may be the only way, senior U.S. and NATO officials suggest.

"We're leveraging it," Gen. John Allen, commander of all international security forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview with visiting reporters on Monday at his southern regional command in Uruzgan. Ryan Crocker, America's ambassador to Afghanistan, also likes this approach. "If we have a [Taliban] command that no longer has an army to command, that works for me," he said in a separate interview.

Hence ISAF's tongue-tying neologism: the "re-integree." According to a senior U.S. adviser to Mohammad Stanekzai, head of the "Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program (APRP)," one measure of success of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is that, since the first "re-integree" came over in October 2010, some 4,200 to 4,300 insurgents have returned to their villages and towns in the last year and a half. (Another 600 are now being "vetted," the adviser says.) Under the APRP, these former fighters give up their "heavy arms," sign an oath renouncing violence and abiding by the Afghan constitution, get three months of $120 payments, and are consigned to the wrath of their village elders if they relapse. An added inducement is that communities can only qualify for small grants from the national government if they show they have some re-integrees.

And yet, admitted the adviser, "we're not at the point where 4,000 is statistically significant." That's because most of the fighters who surrender arms are in the areas with the least diehard jihadists in the non-Pashtun North and West, like Badghis and Herat. (Badghis, in Regional Command West, has by far the largest proportion of re-integrees, some 12-to-1,300 or one third of the total.)

"The problem with the south and east is you're much closer to the heart of the insurgency, they're much more hard-core, and there are more concerns about retribution," the adviser said. As yet, no more than a thousand have come out of the south and east.

Gen. Allen and Amb. Crocker say they place a lot of hope in anecdotal evidence that, slowly, even some of the more zealous, Pakistan-supported Taliban in the south and east are realizing that, in fact, the U.S. and NATO are never going to depart entirely. They say the 10-year strategic partnership that President Obama announced just last week will have a tremendous psychological impact, as will similar commitments expected at the NATO summit in Chicago in two weeks.

"There's going to be an international military presence here in Afghanistan for a long time, a long time after 2014," Allen said. "While the Taliban for the purposes of recruiting and to maintain the coherence in their units may well desire to say that we'll just wait you out, I think the reality is that every day they wait is a day they're at greater disadvantage, frankly," he added.

Crocker indicated that, based on what he's heard, the "informal" reintegration of Taliban in the south is also picking up. "Taliban fighters just want out of this," said Crocker. "In Helmand the governor thinks there' s quite a bit of that going on. They make contact with their home village ... and just schlep on home at night."

Returning Taliban sometimes cite the newly-empowered Afghan security forces, saying they signed up to fight foreigners, not other Afghans, both NATO and Afghan officials say.

Still, one of the more disturbing revelations here is that ISAF officials don't seem to have a good feel for the total number of insurgents out there--it could be "as low as 20,000 to as high as 45,000," one of Allen's staffers said.

Allen himself, in the interview, dismissed the higher number but added: "Nobody knows for sure.... I think most estimates would put it between thirty and thirty-five [thousand]. Some large number of them are in Pakistan. And the term 'enemy' has many different meanings here. A significant number of what might be considered enemy are in a support role, they're not fighters necessarily. And frankly some of what masquerades as enemy are really criminal networks.... So it's never been more than an estimate."

On such estimates may ride the success or failure of the decade-long U.S. effort in Afghanistan.