Frenemies: Prospects and Challenges for the Military Integration of the Taliban into the Afghan Security Forces

With a potential peace settlement on the horizon, much will depend on the prospects and challenges for the integration of Taliban battlefield commanders and fighters into the ranks of the Afghan military, police, and security service—else they could become a significant source of instability, igniting a new conflict by morphing into another splinter group or becoming a lucrative recruitment channel from other terrorist groups such as ISIS, Lashkar e Tayeba, or Lashkar e Jahangvi, to name a few. A Taliban-Remnant could exploit disenchanted and extremist members of these groups to fill in their ranks. 

Essentially, the Afghan national security apparatus requires a significant reorganization. Afghanistan’s existing military and security architecture must be reconfigured and restructured to accommodate former Taliban fighters and commanders, given the drastic changes that will come to the country’s threat environment once the Taliban give up the fight and agree to a peace deal. This could be either vertical or horizontal integration of individuals, groups, or units of Taliban commanders and fighters within Afghanistan’s existing military, civilian, and political institutions.

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Many senior and mid-level Taliban commanders would want to join leadership roles in the Afghan army and police whereas their foot soldiers would like to join the Afghan security forces en masse. This will require a detailed roadmap outlining the ways and means of military integration. More importantly, such an integration roadmap should serve as a guarantor and accelerator for the long-term sustainability and resilience of any peace deal.

The Afghan Taliban is estimated to have between 60,000 and 100,000 fighters under the leadership of mutually exclusive operational commanders, along with mutually dependent political factions within the group, and a highly centralized chain of command but decentralized control and decision-making systems, which gives considerable levy and authority to local commanders to decide routine day-to-day operations in consultation with Taliban shadow administration officials (i.e. governors). This number fluctuates, peaking during the summer months, with seasonal fighters and volunteers coming from Pakistani madrasas to fight in Afghanistan. Numbers are at their lowest during the winter months, due to harsh weather conditions and logistical hurdles.

The Afghan government estimates that one-third of these fighters are foreign terrorist fighters who fight under the Taliban umbrella—these are global, regional and Pakistani terror outfits such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, ETIM, IMU and LeT among others. These fighters are vital for Taliban finances, logistics and provide sophisticated explosive making expertise. Therefore, any peace deal at the outset should require the Taliban to break ties with these terror outfits and foreign terrorist fighters. A challenging task which Taliban are yet to show the resolve and determination to undertake.

The integration of over 100,000 fighters and commanders into military and civilian life is going to be a daunting and fragile task, which would require delicate management and sharp political negotiation skills with both Afghan ownership alongside third-party foreign oversight—preferably from the United Nations.

Afghanistan is no stranger to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants into military and civilian life. Back in 2004, the Afghan New Beginning Program (ANBP) administered through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) assisted in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of thousands of former mujahidin and combatants but with mixed results. It was followed by the Disarmament of Illegal Armed Group (DIAG) program which again had mixed results given lack of Afghan ownership and a strong presence of warlords within the Afghan security and military institutions.

Any military integration of the Afghan Taliban within the ranks of the Afghan military and security institutions would have to be defined within the limits of the type and structure of the new state and subsequently what kind of a security structure and organization would be agreed upon by all sides of the conflict. Furthermore, international experience especially in Africa and South Asia shows that after a peace deal certain countries have opted to downsize the number of their security forces given the new threat environment and have opened up space through reservation and quota within the shrinked security structure for the combatants and their commanders to become apart of the new security and military apparatus.

Military integration of the Taliban fighters and commanders within any new or existing military and security architecture would require a multi-year phased linear approach under the ownership and management of Afghans with the technical assistance of a third party ie the United Nations (UN) with political plus financial support of the United States and its NATO allies as they draw down their troops and redirect a fraction of that cost towards financing the budget required to reintegrate Taliban combatants and commanders in the Afghan military and civilian life.

The Approach

International experience shows that there are mainly three approaches to military integration. Albeit, Afghan history can also guide us in this regard and has its own versions of military integration after the fall of the communist regime in the 1990s and later in early 2000 during the fall of the Taliban regime – both of which were more institutional cleansing than military integration. 

The three military integration models are: 

  1. A consent-based approach, where a comprehensive negotiated settlement of the conflict is reached between the warring parties and the government forces absorb the combatants within its ranks and/or the two forces from the different warring parties merge and constitute a brand new single national security force. 
  2. A complete demobilization model, where the government downsizes its forces but does not integrate combatants into the national security forces.
  3. A coercive model of peace building, where forced disarmament and demobilization of the armed rebels takes places with external assistance (i.e., UN mandated forces).

In all these models—the most feasible one for the Afghan case is the consent based model whereas the ANDSF is resized based on the new threat environment and security landscape and the Taliban commanders and fighters are accommodation across all the level of ANDSF through a quota and reservation system.

The Prospects

In the event of a comprehensive deal with the Afghan Taliban – military integration will inevitably be part and parcel of any peace deal. The foundational questions which needs to be tackled at the outset of any peace deal will be: what will be the size and shape of the new security and military architecture of Afghanistan in view of the new security environment and based on what model (i.e. NATO or non-NATO military model) as well as the future relationship of the Taliban with the United States and its allies. These foundational questions will determine the size, scope and sustainability of the future Afghan military and security forces of which the newly demobilized Taliban fighters and commanders will be an integral part of it. 

Subsequently, the Taliban can be integrated at three levels, with senior commanders at the top, mid-level commanders in the middle, with foot soldiers making up the base. Integration can be done individually, in groups, or unit integration at the field level. Senior and mid-level Taliban commanders would expect positions of influence within or outside of the Afghan military and security services. This can be approached through a bottom–up field level integration at the division or corp level or be undertaken through individual negotiations with Taliban military leaders through a screening and filtering mechanism.

Much will also depend on the size of the new Afghan military and their operational priorities in view of the rise of Daesh and emergence of Taliban splinter groups and criminal outfits post Taliban peace deal who would split from the Taliban chain of command and carry on the fight in pursuit of their own political and business agendas.

Under such such circumstances—in the interim—the Afghan government and its allies will have to integrate Taliban rank and file within the existing ANDSF size and structure and then through a roadmap transform and downsize ANDSF into a more affordable and sustainable force. This interim integration could be done through center and field level integration (i.e., integrating Taliban units to various geographical army corps across the country and integrate senior Taliban commanders in Kabul HQ).

In the long run – the Afghan government together with its allies, will also have to decide how many professional armed forces and how many auxiliary local forces they need for securing the country. This could provide an opportunity for Afghans and their NATO allies where the existing army could be kept as a professional force, albeit significantly downsized, whereas the Taliban forces with some exception could be added as auxiliary local forces given their vast presence in the country side to complement the security work of the newly reorganized Afghan army.

Furthermore, the Taliban commanders and fighters will need to go through sensitization programs as well as short and long-term training courses plus attend joint exercises with the Afghan forces to promote unity in the force. This will help cohesiveness and efficiency within the command and control structure of the newly reorganized and reconfigured Afghan military.

The Challenges

Naturally, with the military integration of the Afghan Taliban within the security infrastructure of Afghanistan comes many sets of political, military, institutional, cultural, financial and budgetary challenges. In fragile countries such as Afghanistan, the biggest of them all will be the political challenge – wherein both sides of the conflict remain committed and resilient regardless of the change in personalities and leaders to the agreed terms of the peace deal and do not use military force as a means of political leverage on each other.

Most of the peace deals and military integration plans fail because one side renege on their commitments and start using military force as a political leverage. Second, comes the institutional absorption capacity to accept change and not to resist the integration of the Taliban commanders and fighters within their ranks.

This is followed by the management and financial requirements which is the least of our worries since a third party (i.e. the UN with the help of the international community) will assist in providing the technical expertise and raise funds to finance the budgetary requirements of the peace deal and military integration plan.

In the case of Afghanistan, the two top challenges will be political resilience and institutional capacity to transform and accommodate the newly integrated Taliban commanders and fighters. The rest can be managed.

The Mechanism

Based on international best practices, there are normally two internationally recognized mechanisms through which Taliban fighters and commanders can be integrated within the rank and file of Afghan forces: (a) a temporary parallel co-existence mechanism until full integration happens which is normally referred to as interim security arrangement; and (b) immediate reintegration whereas forces are immediately disarmed and demobilized by individuals, groups and units sometimes keeping the entire command and control structure intact.

Both mechanisms have their pros and cons, under the interim security arrangement both forces co-exist within their geographies under their control but in a cooperative manner (i.e. ceasing hostilities providing security and law enforcement services to their respective areas eventually merged into one force). This mechanism is a recent phenomenon due to size and institutional absorption capacity issues. Many military integration and DDR processes have failed because it has stalled due to institutional capacity issues and political infightings. Therefore, an interim period is envisioned whereas the forces are integrated in instalments over a period of time while both forces co-exist with each other in a cooperative manner conducting joint patrols, joint trainings and exercises. This will assist in better integration and merger of the two forces.

The immediate mobilization mechanism is doable only when the size of the opposing warring parties are small and the institutional absorption capacity in the military apparatus of the country is high with a firm political will and adequate financial resources at hand. This is normally the classic method of military integration whereas the armed rebels are disarmed and demobilized immediately and reintegrated within the government security forces through an elaborate screening, training and professionalization process.

The Way Forward

For any peace deal to succeed in a complex case environment such as Afghanistan, it is imperative that it has to have a robust military integration roadmap for integrating Taliban fighters and commanders within the existing or a new Afghan military and security apparatus. This means Afghans together with their international partners will need to reassess their force size, posture, composition and operational readiness in view of the new challenges that would emerge in the event of a post peace deal with the Taliban.

The Taliban leadership will also have to evaluate and make certain key decisions such as what kind of an army and police they envision for Afghanistan? How do they intend to break their ties and fight foreign terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, LeT, and others, as well as to define their long-term relations with the United States and its allies?

Finally, the United States and its allies must define what, when, how, and under what circumstances they will continue assisting post-peace deal Afghan security forces reconstituted and reorganized with Taliban commanders within its ranks?

All of the above decisions will have a significant bearing over the success and failure of any potential military integration plan for the Taliban commanders and fighters within the ranks of the Afghan security forces.

Tamim Asey

Tamim Asey is the Chairman of the Institute of War and Peace Studies (IWPS). Previously, he served as Deputy Minister of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He is a Fulbright scholar and a graduate of Columbia University. He is on Twitter @tamimasey.

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