Taliban 'reintegration' in eastern Afghanistan faces steep challenges

GHAZNI, Afghanistan -- American forces here are facing an uphill battle to get Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons, disavow their extremist ties and fully align themselves with the central Afghan government, according to U.S. officials.

Taliban reintegration programs in eastern Afghanistan have been "extremely challenging" due to the volatile security situation in this part of the country, Lt. Col. Jenifer Breaux told The Hill.

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Individuals who are considering breaking ties with the Taliban "are very scared" go through the formal reintegration process with U.S. forces for fear of retribution against themselves or their families, said Breaux, who heads up reintegration efforts with the U.S. provincial reconstruction team in Paktika province.

Despite that tenuous security situation, U.S. team members have seen a steady flow of "informal reintegration," with most of those insurgents coming from within the Haqqani ranks, as well as a number of foreign fighters coming from Pakistan, Breaux said in an interview at Forward Operating Base Sharana in Paktika.

With informal reintegration, an insurgent fighter simply agrees to lay down his arms and return back to his province, forgoing the vetting and transition process that comes with formal reintegration.

Those who opt into the formal reintegration process run the risk of being openly identified as cooperating with U.S. and Afghan forces, exposing them and their families to retaliation from Taliban or Haqqani fighters.

Sometimes, those who go through the formal process have to be relocated from their homes, due to security concerns, according to guidance issued by U.S. and NATO forces in 2010.

Formal and informal reintegration efforts in Afghanistan have been championed by a handful of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has publicly expressed his support for reintegration of Taliban and Haqqani fighters.

"When you catch a Taliban fighter, a guy who is not a full-blown jihadist, but probably more involved because of economics . . . We are going to try to reintegrate that person," Graham said in an interview with the Daily Caller back in 2010.

"There is nothing unique about this process," he said at the time.

That said, top American, Afghan and Pakistani officials are drafting a transition plan designed to allow top-tier Taliban leaders to participate in upcoming peace talks once U.S. forces leave in 2014.

Members of the Safe Passage Working Group met for the first time in Islamabad in September to begin laying the groundwork to get Taliban officials to the negotiating table safely.

While that work continues in Kabul and elsewhere, the situation on the ground in places like Paktika, Ghazni and elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan remains much more difficult.

One of the biggest problems is the makeup of the Haqqani Network, compared to that of the Taliban, Breaux added.

The Taliban, by and large, is defined as a sweeping movement of ideals based on its strict interpretation of Islam. The Haqqani Network, on the other hand, is connected via a network of tribal and familial ties.

While it may be difficult for a Taliban fighter to abandon his loyalty to the movement, it is extremely difficult for a Haqqani fighter to turn his back on what essentially is his family, Breaux explained.

Despite that, Breaux and her team have been steadily pursuing a number of innovative programs in and around Paktika to support reintegration efforts.

Most recently, members of the reconstruction team here have instituted a new deradicalization and vocational training program for former insurgents who go through the formal reintegration process.

Focusing on teaching specific trades -- welding, plumbing, tailoring and construction -- will ensure that U.S. forces just don't hand a recently reintegrated Taliban or Haqqani fighter "a rifle and send them to the [Afghan Local Police]," Breaux said.

The reconstruction team in Paktika also held an all-female peace shura in the province, the first time any event like that has been carried out in Paktika, she added.

Keeping reintegrated insurgents and their families safe remains the No. 1 challenge in places like eastern Afghanistan.

Paktika, Ghazni and Paktia provinces sit along the volatile border with Pakistan and have increasingly become a flashpoint between coalition troops and insurgent forces.

Taliban fighters and members of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network have launched a series of cross-border raids against U.S. forces in Paktika and other bordering provinces.

Most recently, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated a carload of explosives in Wardak province in eastern Afghanistan, over 20 miles from Kabul, killing 40 and injuring dozens more.

The extreme mix of ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks and other tribal groups in Ghazni will likely make the province the "front line between a more stable north and a more fractious south," Navy Lt. James Isbell, the intelligence officer for the reconstruction team stationed here, told The Hill.

That said, reintegration efforts in the east are well behind those in the northern part of Afghanistan, in terms of manpower and resources. Breaux has only been in Paktika for seven months and is scheduled to pull out from the region in April.

By next June, U.S. forces plan to draw down the number of provincial reconstruction teams to eight for the entire country, said Dean Mattaline, the senior civilian representative for reconstruction team in Paktika.

As U.S. forces look to disengage from Afghanistan in the run-up to the White House's 2014 withdrawal deadline, Breaux and others here continue the push Afghans and others to leave the Taliban and other insurgent groups and become "more integrated into the [Afghan] community."

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