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By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2011 – An Afghan-led program to reintegrate former insurgents is helping to stabilize communities, districts and provinces throughout Afghanistan, the general leading NATO International Security Assistance Force’s contribution to this effort said.
British Army Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, director of ISAF’s Force Reintegration Cell, described to Pentagon reporters today via video uplink from Kabul, Afghanistan, the reintegration program’s role in Afghanistan’s long-term peace strategy.
There are now 2,418 former fighters enrolled in the program, Jones said, In contrast with this time last year, when the process existed only on paper.
“These are 2,418 men who are no longer shooting at the coalition and Afghan soldiers, no longer laying roadside bombs that kill innocent women and children,” he said.
Jones said the reintegration process works in phases: when former insurgents wish to enroll, Afghan officials interview them, take iris and fingerprint scans, and store that data in government systems. After the former fighters integrate back into their villages, international donations dedicated to community improvement take hold.
“The $142 million that is in the international trust fund is almost exclusively focused on community development projects,” he said, adding that both the central Afghan government and international donors emphasize former insurgents shouldn’t receive monetary incentives to lay down their arms.
In Badghis, where reintegration has been in place for nine months, there is now a vocational training center with 400 to 500 people going through the reintegration process, along with community members, enrolled in six-month programs, he said.
Former fighters do receive a stipend of roughly $120 per month for three months “to ease them out of the fight and ease them back into the communities,” Jones said.
“Fighters themselves have the greatest incentive of all, which is to be able to step off the battlefield with their honor and dignity intact and return to Afghanistan and live in peace,” he added.
While reintegration has progressed quickly in some ways, Jones said, the process is slow and incremental, particularly in the volatile southern and eastern provinces.
“[The] huge challenge was to overcome some of the incredible skepticism and doubt that a peace program of any type could emerge in the middle of a conflict,” he added.
The Afghan approach to peace building and reintegration focuses on building trust and confidence “amongst people who have been fighting the government and each other for many years,” he noted.
“Through the outreach of political, social and religious leaders of the provinces and districts, peace is built village by village if necessary,” he explained. “So while we all feel a great sense of urgency to break the cycle of violence … [we must] respect the necessity of the courageous, patient, confidence-building and conflict resolution work of leaders and elders.”
At the end of the program’s first year, Afghanistan’s High Peace Council has a joint secretariat to manage the process, with peace committees in 32 provinces and secretariats in 25 provinces, he said, while reintegration is actually happening in 20 provinces.
“To my mind, that's a magnificent achievement,” he said.
Jones acknowledged the number of people being formally reintegrated is modest “in comparison to our scale of ambition.”
ISAF has estimated the number of insurgents in Afghanistan at 25,000, a mix of full-time fighters and villagers motivated by long-standing tribal or community conflict, he said.
“The overwhelming majority of groups joining the [reintegration] process so far have been low-level fighters,” he said. “But … we're seeing more significant groups beginning to flow in across the country.”
Their departure from the battlefield is an important contribution to peace in Afghanistan, Jones said, where decades of conflict have left people cautious and wary.
“As the process continues to push ahead, we see confidence grow, enabling provincial peace councils across the country to build peace strategies and work on grievance resolution,” he said.
Jones said ISAF's role in the process is to work with Afghan military and civil partners to coordinate across governmental functions: security, political outreach, governance, rule of law and development.
“This is an Afghan program, designed by Afghans and led by Afghans. But we're keen supporters, able and willing to do whatever we can to support the Afghan peace and reintegration program,” he said.
About two-thirds of former fighters in the reintegration program come from the country’s nine northern and four western provinces, Jones said. The remaining third come from the south and east, he said, including roughly 100 in Kandahar, 20 to 30 so far in Helmand, 40 to 50 in Kunar, and more than 100 in Laghman.
“It's emerging in much smaller groups in the south and east,” he said. “But this is where we're starting to see some of the real growth in people tackling this process.”
Helmand’s Governor Gulab Mangal “was one of the first to get into this, really working through the tribes, the tribal elders, through the religious leaders, to reach out to build peace,” Jones said.
Mangal has “relatively formally but very discreetly” reintegrated 200 to 300 former fighters “very quietly,” Jones added.
“They're not registered in our program yet,” he said. “They will come.”
In Helmand and other border provinces, Jones said, conflict is heavier and insurgent intimidation efforts stronger than in other areas.
“People [there] in some respects are still weighing up whether they really want to commit themselves conclusively to the government, but they wanted to step out of the fight; they want peace and stability,” he said.
Jones is now almost finished with his fourth Afghan tour since 2002. When his current stretch of duty started in May 2010, he said, “I was … quite shocked to find that some of my Afghan colleagues who I knew very well over the years felt profoundly gloomy about the future of Afghanistan.”
A year and a half ago, transition as a process didn't exist, Jones noted.
“There was a real concern that there was going to be a very precipitous drop-off of the international community this year, while the Taliban was still seen as an existential threat to the government in some provinces,” he said.
Since then, surges in troop numbers, civilian assistance and Afghan security capability have had “quite a profound effect,” he said.
“It hasn't tipped the strategic balance of confidence conclusively one way, but it's certainly reshaped it from a profound gloom to people who are starting to grapple with a more orderly future,” he added.
Afghans are more confident, as well, that the international community presence in their country will continue beyond 2014, he said.
“This is not a precipitous drop off the edge of a cliff at the end of 2014. This is an orderly process of transition that hands over Afghan sovereignty in every respect,” he said. “There'll be a requirement for an international presence to support many parts of the growing elements of government for some time to come.”