Afghanistan: Reconciliation and Reintegration in Loya Paktia

The region Loya Paktia consists of the three provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost.
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The region Loya Paktia consists of the three provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost

1 Introduction

Loya Paktia is very much embedded in tribal traditions and its social organization still regulated by the customary law known as Pashtunwali. Compared to other parts of Afghanistan, the region has long benefited from strong and cohesive tribal structures. Indeed, tribes in this part of the country are traditionally the largest permanent political and social units, where elites (khans, maliks) and notables (spin giri) hold great influence.

While the integrity of these institutions has steadily eroded since the jihad against the Soviet occupation, until relatively recently, security at both the district and provincial levels in Loya Paktia were guaranteed by agreements among tribes, and between tribes and the government. The Afghan government still relies in certain areas on tribes to provide community-based policing (arbakai).

This said, several windows of opportunity have been lost since 2001 when district councils and tribal leaders were willing to join forces with the Afghan government in order to broker a meaningful partnership in the area of governance and security.

Security has deteriorated to such an extent in the past few years (and most notably since 2005) that tribes can no longer guarantee the full security of their communities or their land. Agreements between tribes and the government have come under increasing pressure and the insurgency forces traditional tribal leaders to disengage from the Afghan government with numerous incidences of threats and assassinations. As a consequence, people across the Southeast region no longer view the current government as a meaningful partner in the areas of governance and security, neither in the districts or provincial centres.

Against this backdrop, elders in Loya Paktia (see Map 1) are being asked to support a peace and reintegration initiative between insurgents and the government both locally and at the national level. However, the outcome of the process could be undermined given that the actors in the Southeast who should ultimately be a part of a reconciliation and reintegration process (i.e. the government, tribes, the International Military) have either been weakened, have poor relations or view each other with mistrust.

This policy paper discusses the problematic relations between these main actors, why reconciliation initiatives to date have failed in the Southeast, and puts forward some practical suggestions to ensure a more effective strategy.

2 An Ever-Widening Gulf Between the Tribes and the Government

Several factors have contributed to a deterioration of tribe-government relations, the undermining of progovernment tribal leadership and the increasing loss of faith in government by the community, which the insurgency has been steadily exploiting.

Tribal leadership has come under increasing pressure and intimidation from a more robust and well-organized insurgency that is transiting easily across the region’s porous border with Pakistan.5 Association with the government has proven increasingly dangerous for tribal leaders.

An important window of opportunity was lost during the years following the Bonn Conference, when a political roadmap was laid out for the country. The weakness of sub-national governance structures meant that alliances with influential tribal leaders were not capitalised upon, and key tribal leaders from the region were not drawn into the state building process.

The willingness of tribes to engage with the government has, over the years, been taken for granted by both the Afghan government and their international supporters. Subsequently less funding has been earmarked for development projects in the region especially in comparison with other, more volatile parts of the country, namely the South. This has eroded the authority of pro-government tribal leaders who have been unable to channel development benefits and services to their communities, which in turn has contributed to a perception among tribes that they have been politically and economically sidelined.

Currently there are few legitimate interlocutors between the government and the people as the Provincial Council holds no meaningful role in terms of bridging gaps between the two, let alone between the government and local insurgents. Government appointments based on patronage networks rather than merit render the state unpopular.

Line departments are woefully understaffed, underpaid and underresourced, creating incentives for nefarious activities in order to supplement meagre incomes. This has widened what is an increasingly large gap between the government and the people.

The minimal presence of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in most rural districts (in particular the police, who also lack proper training and equipment and are often involved in criminal activities) exacerbates the poor security environment.

Lastly, unpopular military and Special Forces (SOF) counter-insurgency operations, sometimes based on what is perceived to be inadequate information, undermines the local government who have little apparent oversight, control or knowledge as to when such operations are taking place. This perception has contributed to an estrangement from, or at least ambivalence toward, the state and international military forces (IMF) unable to protect their own people. All this has decreased the willingness of tribal leaders to engage with local government.

3 Old and New Reconciliation Initiatives – No Lessons Learned

The new Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) differs remarkably little from the objectives of the Program Tahkim Sulh (the government’s National Program for Reconciliation commonly referred to as the PTS), a program widely perceived to have been unsuccessful:

“the aim of the [new] Peace and Reintegration Program is to promote peace through a political approach and encourages Taliban fighters and leaders, previously siding with armed opposition and extremist groups, to renounce violence and join a constructive process of reintegration to benefit from a second chance at peace and sustained governance and economic development.”

...the same objectives that the PTS was mandated to carry out.

Briefly, the PTS was established through a presidential decree in May 2005 and chaired by former mujahideen commander Sibghatullah Mojaddedi the purpose of which was to end inter-group armed hostilities, resolve unsettled national issues, facilitate the healing of wounds caused by past injustices, and take necessary measures to prevent the repeat of the civil war and its destruction.

However due to a lack of funding and a series of missed opportunities, local communities in the Southeast claim that the PTS was largely useless and its offices only brought in “ordinary or unimportant individuals” for reconciliation in order to show they were being active and to continue working. One reason for this was due to the conditions attached to reconciliation. The PTS head in Khost, for example, had been instructed by his superiors in Kabul not to reconcile fighters unless they also turned in their weapon(s) whilst offering nothing in return. This rendered the proposition unacceptable for most potential participants.

Furthermore, under the PTS program, there was continued fear of arrest by the ANSF and IMF even after insurgents joined the program, as there was never any guarantee they would not be arrested once they handed themselves and their weapons over. In 2009, for example, eleven reconciled insurgents were detained by the NDS or IMF, and nine were killed by insurgents.

The new APRP, a complex and possibly deliberately vague initiative, proposes utilizing the existing capacities of the former PTS program, as well as consolidating the Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG); a program also widely seen as unsuccessful. The prevailing lack of security and weakness of the ANSF gives little hope that the new program will provide any similar guarantees of safety for newly reconciled insurgents.

Whilst the new plan certainly does not lack the financial resources the PTS did, the complexity, breadth and scope of the initiative could undermine any tangible success unless long-standing underlying causes of the conflict are addressed and some form of serious public restorative process dealing with past injustices and grievances between rival political groups or tribes gets underway. Most fighters will either take the reintegration money offered to them without leaving the insurgency, or they will wait and see what happens before they join any such initiative.

Similarly, without taking into consideration the regional dimension of the conflict and marginalised tribes, and without any serious attempts at political reform within the government at both the national and sub-national levels, such a peace initiative will hold little traction.

4 Ambiguous Role of the Provincial Government and the Importance of Choosing the ‘Right’ Interlocutors

In 2007, the Afghan Government recognized the contribution that all provincial governors make to stabilization through the process of political outreach by mobilizing funds to support them in their work. Indeed the new peace initiative puts mediation between provincial and district governors on the one hand, and local insurgents on the other, in the foreground of its strategic reconciliation plan, stating that governors will “play a pivotal role in coordinating the support of the line ministries with local peace and reintegration processes”.

However, the influence and popularity of local government in the Southeast differs from province to province and district to district, and is determined by a myriad of factors, including a particular uluswal’s tribal or political affiliations with his constituents, levels of service delivery, perceptions of corruption within local government, security and so on.

In interviews conducted throughout the course of a jirga organized by TLO in Gardez in March 2010, a number of respondents stated that no insurgent would be interested in talking to corrupt or weak government representatives. Indeed, respondents in the region have repeatedly stated that if government institutions remain as they are, even if they are brought in, insurgents will soon be inclined to rejoin the insurgency.

A genuine reconciliation effort will require established relations and a degree of trust and respect between the provincial government and the local population. If provincial government officials are not supported by the local community and do not seek input from different sectors of society (including civil society organizations, influential community members, tribal elders, mullahs and spiritual leaders) – particularly in a region such as the Southeast, where tribes pride themselves on being highly effective mediators, a governor-led process to bring in local level insurgents could encounter difficulties. Besides being a party to the conflict, they are not always seen as a credible counterparts by other stakeholders. The ability and political will of provincial governors varies a great deal in Loya Paktia (and across the country), and with this the degrees of power and influence that they wield in their respective provinces.

When it comes to resolving conflicts for example, provincial governors in the region, whilst they may not necessarily be popular, can show effective leadership through positive contributions to resolving inter-tribal conflicts.

Former Governor Jamal in Khost, for example, actively sought to create a conflict resolution mechanism at the provincial level to help relieve the burden of formal provincial justice actors, who were overwhelmed with the number of (predominantly) land disputes being brought before him. Governor Hamdard in Paktia province subsequently requested that a similar body be established in his province.

In Khost, Governor Abdul Jabar Naimi was only recently appointed following months of a lack of recognised leadership in the province. Initial accounts of his performance have been positive, in that he is apparently trying to boost government public accountability and forcing line departments to inform the Khosti people about their activities through media conferences and struggling to reduce corruption within line departments. He has already established a commission to look into various ongoing land disputes. However, Governor Naimi put forward 18 advisors to the Peace Jirga held in Kabul in June, with no prior consultation with tribes from the province, which generated a degree of mistrust in the province.

Governance in Paktika is weak given the size, remoteness and prevailing insecurity. There is also a significant political divide, with Urgun district elders advocating for the Urgun area to become a province in its own right (as 11 districts of Paktika’s 22 districts fall under its jurisdiction; Urgun and these districts were formerly a single province). This division within the province would likely undermine any role played by the newly appointed governor, Mahibullah Samim (a former jihadi) to exert influence and pressure on insurgents in the province to reintegrate.

In light of the above, while there is scope for enabling provincial governors to play a mediation role at the provincial level provided they consult with and receive the consensus of key tribal stakeholders in the province, and provided they are given sufficient resources for such extensive outreach efforts, the ability of provincial government institutions to broker sustainable peace deals is dubious and remains highly dependent on the individuals in question and on local conditions.

5 Traditional Actors’ Perceptions of a Reconciliation Process

Many tribal elders spoken to across the Southeast region stated that they could play a far more instrumental role than the government in bringing insurgents to the negotiation table, and as mentioned above, have long regarded themselves as being effective mediators.

In their opinion, only through traditional means of negotiations would peace be found, i.e. through consultations and jirgas with impartial tribal elders and respected ulema figures. Elders could then act as mediators between local government and former combatants. However, if they are to take on a more prominent role, i.e. negotiating on behalf of the state, there needs to be a formal recognition and endorsement of this role.

Whilst not as traditionally dominant as in other, less tribal parts of the country, the importance and influence of local mullahs cannot be underestimated, though their significance differs across the region. As with tribal leaders, there is a fundamental lack of trust between the ulema shuras and government authorities. In Paktika, as in other provinces of the Southeast, these religious bodies will be instrumental in any peace process, as they are widely trusted and legitimate bodies. Their involvement in a reconciliation initiative in the Southeast will be key.

Reconciliation outreach efforts would also include trying to gauge how people might feel about commanders from the region being reintegrated into society, and how this could be done without intensifying or creating new tensions in areas where a fragile peace exists only due to agreements brokered between tribal leaders and certain insurgent commanders, who request safe passage or havens in return for people not being harassed or harmed.

A widely held view in the region is that Afghan fighters or commanders should be allowed to join the government and important (Afghan) Taliban commanders be removed from the UN blacklist, though some people indicated that there would be little support for welcoming back ISIbacked groups.

6 Can International Military Forces Help Bring Peace and Stability?

Given that there has been a conflict of mandates from the onset, with US-led Coalition Forces (CF) under Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) focusing on counter-terrorism rather than statebuilding and counter-insurgency as ISAF/NATO does, the impact on the ground by international military actors has often been negative.

Even though IMF presence in the Southeast has contributed to keeping the insurgency at bay, the nature of their operations have been heavily criticised. Aerial bombardments and night raids in particular have created a negative public perception of the IMF, seen to be disrespecting Afghan culture, the sanctity of the home and the strict privacy of female members of the household as well as undermining the Afghan state unable to reign in its international supporters.

This common sentiment is summed up in the words of a leader of the Tani tribe in Southeastern Khost: “How can we trust a government which does not have the power to regulate illegal IMF night raids, searches and operations? Civilians are being killed yet our corrupt government does nothing to stop this.”

Members from the Zazi tribe in Paktia voiced similar discontent and stated that whilst they had been supportive of the government since the Bonn process, what they perceive as arbitrary detentions in their areas are eroding the tribe’s support for the government.

Moreover, ISAF/NATO is seen as incapable of protecting civilians against the Taliban, and is not allocating sufficient time or resources into strengthening the ANSF to do so. Despite ISAF/NATO recently changing course on aerial bombardments and the practice of night-raids, the humiliation, disempowerment and resentment caused by such operations should not be underestimated when bearing in mind practical reconciliation and reintegration strategies, such as seeing IMF as a trustworthy partner in this effort.

7 Conclusion and Recommendations

This policy brief has attempted to highlight some of the current problems and the difficult relationship between local community leaders, the Afghan government and their international backers in the Southeast that, if not taken into account, will serve to undermine any genuine reconciliation/reintegration process. While the will for such a new reconciliation initiative in the Southeast is there and elders have pledged their services and support, the following issues need to be addressed prior to once again embarking on such a process:

To the GoA:

  • Any reconciliation and reintegration strategy in the Southeast must happen in consultation with influential tribal representatives and the ulema. Unless the process is inclusive of these two groups, it will lack the legitimacy or trust to be effective;
  • Subnational-governance reform is key to improving people’s current perceptions of the government as being a self-serving corrupt body. Ensuring fair appointments based on merit as opposed to connections is key;
  • Effective relations must be built or consolidated between government authorities and tribal/religious actors, as this will help to create trust between key stakeholders.

To the GoA and the International Community:

  • The central government must lead and publicly endorse any meaningful reconciliation and reintegration process with the full backing of the International Community;
  • Some higher level commanders from the region should be removed from the UN blacklist – without this, low-level fighters will have little incentive to trust the process;
  • A process of restorative justice must be encouraged and take place at the grassroots level to address past rights abuses by government actors and to help avoid built-up resentment from turning into longstanding blood feuds, creating further instability;

To the GoA and ISAF:

  • There must be firm guarantees that returning fighters will not subsequently be arrested by Afghan National Security Forces or by the International Military;
  • There must be more robust and systematic post-operation followup efforts similar to those employed by RC-East in order to address civilian casualties (including through compensation for loss of life and injuries and damage to physical property).