Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

Lessons Learned Program

September 2019

Reintegration of Ex-Combatants:Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan

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AFP photo

The United States and the Taliban have been engaged in talks to reach an agreement that could set the stage for a viable intra-Afghan peace process. Though the status of these talks is uncertain, the U.S. goal remains a sustainable political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. If such a settlement is reached, a critical challenge will be the reintegration of tens of thousands of former fighters and their families into civilian life.

This report—the seventh lessons learned report to be issued by SIGAR—examines post-2001 reintegration efforts in Afghanistan, and opportunities and constraints for reintegration now and in the future. It also looks at past local security agreements, case studies of reintegration in Colombia and Somalia, and the broader literature on the topic. Through this analysis, the report identifies key lessons, makes recommendations to the U.S. Congress and executive branch agencies for how the United States can best advance reintegration goals, and raises several matters for consideration for the Afghan government, should it pursue a reintegration program.

Reintegration—fighters transitioning to civilian life, gaining acceptance from their community, and finding a sustainable livelihood—is a complex, long-term process, as old as war itself.

The immediate question facing U.S. policymakers is whether to support any reintegration activities amid the ongoing insurgency and without a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Our report concludes that U.S. agencies should not do so, given the difficulty of vetting, protecting, and tracking combatants who claim they want to stop fighting. None of the post-2001 reintegration programs succeeded in enabling any significant number of ex-combatants to rejoin civil society. Programs specifically targeting Taliban fighters did not weaken the insurgency to any substantial degree or contribute meaningfully to parallel reconciliation efforts.

On the other hand, in the event of a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, this report recommends that the Congress may wish to consider funding a reintegration program if: (a) the Afghan peace agreement provides a framework for reintegration of ex-combatants; (b) a significant reduction in overall violence occurs; and (c) a strong monitoring and evaluation system is established for reintegration efforts. At the same time, U.S. agencies would need to take into account several risks to the execution of a program, including corruption, the difficulty of monitoring and evaluation, vetting challenges, and security issues—challenges that have plagued Afghan reintegration efforts since 2001, as this report lays out.

Key Risks and Challenges to Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) Efforts

  • Peace agreements may not adequately address DDR issues, or secure political commitment to a DDR process.
  • In post-conflict environments, host nation legitimacy and capacity are usually weak.
  • A reintegration program will be vulnerable to systemic corruption within weak institutions.
  • A weak licit economy is unlikely to offer many sustainable livelihood options to ex-combatants and their families.
  • It is difficult to synchronize and balance the delivery of benefits to individual ex-combatants and receiving communities.
  • DDR programs can inadvertently encourage predatory and abusive behavior by ex-combatants.
  • It is extremely difficult to assess the impact of DDR programs.
  • Monitoring and evaluation efforts are often dependent on access to data that is not easily available or willingly shared by parties to the conflict.
  • Serious funding problems often plague UN-led reintegration programming, which relies on voluntary contributions by donor states.

Reintegration Programs in Afghanistan, 2003–2016

AFP photo

From 2003 to 2016, some form of Afghan reintegration program was in place. The first two targeted state-aligned and non-state armed groups, while the second two programs were directed at Taliban insurgents. While the programs differed in their design, benefits offered to former fighters and communities, and level of international support, they shared many of the same challenges: the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement, insecurity, lack of political will, fraud and corruption, and poor monitoring and evaluation.

No one [U.S.] agency or bureau has the lead for all DDR-related issues, and the actual expertise is limited, scattered throughout the government, and unfortunately often not in the agency or bureau that appears to be the coordination lead.

Monopoly of Force: The Nexus of DDR and SSR, National Defense University, 2011

The Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Program, 2003–2005

Heavy weapons on display after being handed over by Afghan militiamen as part of the DDR program. (AFP photo)
AFP photo

The Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program was Afghanistan’s first attempt at reintegration in the wake of the Bonn Agreement. Implementation of the DDR program, however, did not meet the demands of the thousands of Afghan Militia Forces (AMF) fighters who put down their guns in return for promises of integration into state security forces, political inclusion, and livelihood opportunities outside of fighting. In particular, the reintegration component of DDR was not as well planned or carried out as were the disarmament and demobilization phases. Ultimately, Afghanistan’s weak economy, coupled with DDR’s inability to develop viable and sustainable livelihoods for ex-combatants, likely drove many DDR participants back into militia groups.

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Key Findings

  • The lack of U.S. political and financial support seriously undermined the DDR program.
  • U.S. forces partnered with militias that were meant to be disbanded, which empowered those commanders and helped them avoid demobilization.
  • Many Afghan militia commanders resisted participating in the DDR program, in part because their rivals remained armed.
  • The DDR program failed to dismantle the command and control structures of the AMF.
  • The reintegration component of the DDR program was not as well planned or carried out as were the disarmament and demobilization phases.
  • Reintegration packages were poorly designed and delivered. They were largely confined to vocational training, did not adequately respond to ex-combatants’ needs, and were slow to deliver benefits.
  • Insufficient monitoring and evaluation made it difficult to assess the outcome of DDR’s reintegration efforts.
  • Afghanistan’s weak economy, coupled with the DDR program’s inability to develop sustainable livelihoods for ex-combatants, likely drove many DDR participants back into militia groups.

The Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups Program, 2005–2011

Provincial leaders hold a DIAG-sponsored weapons turn-in ceremony at the provincial government complex in Sharan, Paktika Province. (DOD photo by Sgt. Mark A. Moore II)
DOD photo by Sgt. Mark A. Moore II

The Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) program was designed as a follow-on to the DDR program. DIAG aimed to disarm and disband some 1,800 illegal armed groups that were not part of the AMF and had not been dismantled through the DDR program. DIAG was also meant to be used to disqualify 2005 parliamentary election candidates with links to armed groups, though only a small number of candidates were ultimately barred from running for office. DIAG offered development projects to communities that persuaded militias to disarm, but communities generally did not have such leverage over armed groups, and very few projects were completed. In districts that complied with DIAG, Afghan security forces were often unable to fill the ensuing security vacuum, resulting in many illegal armed groups staying armed or rearming for their own protection.

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Key Findings

  • A lack of consistent political will from the Afghan government and coalition partners, including the United States, undermined DIAG objectives to disband and disarm illegal armed groups.
  • U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were reluctant to assist in coercing militias to disband because they relied on some for security and other services.
  • DIAG focused delivery of benefits to communities that persuaded militias to disarm, but communities generally lacked such leverage over armed groups.
  • Community development projects faced many implementation challenges and relatively few were completed.
  • Insufficient monitoring and evaluation meant that it was difficult to evaluate program outcomes.

Program Tahkim-e Sulh, 2005–2011

U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers conduct a key leader engagement near Makhtum, Wardak Province. (DOD photo by 2nd Lt. Jeff Hall)
DOD photo by 2nd Lt. Jeff Hall

Whereas DDR and DIAG targeted militias that had fought against the Taliban or were engaged in general criminality, Program Tahkim-e Sulh (PTS) was the first reintegration program to be directed towards the Taliban and other insurgents. The Karzai administration created PTS as an element of its efforts to reconcile with Taliban leaders and stave off the growing insurgency. At the time, however, the U.S. government’s position on reconciliation more closely resembled a willingness to accept a Taliban surrender, as opposed to a negotiated settlement. Ultimately, PTS was plagued by claims of widespread corruption and did not serve as a tool for wider reconciliation and reintegration.

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Key Findings

  • A primary obstacle to the success of PTS was that the program was implemented in the absence of a political settlement.
  • PTS focused more on reconciliation and disarmament than on assisting program participants in a process of long-term social and economic reintegration.
  • PTS failed to entice senior-level insurgents to reconcile through the program. There is evidence that the known insurgents who did reconcile through PTS entered the program through channels other than PTS structures—for instance, after release from detention or through ad hoc negotiations.
  • The U.S. government viewed PTS primarily as a means to entice insurgents to surrender or defect, thereby weakening the Taliban insurgency.
  • International donors withdrew support for the program largely because PTS was viewed as ineffective and corrupt.
  • The U.S. military, in coordination with the Afghan government, used PTS to facilitate the release of Taliban detainees deemed not to be a threat.
  • The absence of a monitoring and evaluation system meant that it was difficult to evaluate program outcomes or substantiate claims about the numbers of genuine insurgents who reintegrated through PTS.

The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, 2010–2016

Members of the High Peace Council and provincial governors from southern Afghanistan answer questions about reconciliation and reintegration during a press conference in Kandahar City in 2010. (U.S. Army photo by SPC Edward A. Garibay)
U.S. Army photo by SPC Edward A. Garibay

The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) was an internationally supported program led by the Afghan government to promote reconciliation and security through outreach to the Taliban, reintegration of former insurgents, and community recovery projects. APRP was initiated at a time when counterinsurgency doctrine informed most policies and programs being implemented in Afghanistan—and reintegration become a key element of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency campaign. APRP’s success depended in part on how well the Afghan government and coalition forces could provide security for former combatants and the communities that accepted them. But APRP failed to provide adequate security for former fighters, and overemphasized economic incentives for their reintegration. APRP also faced numerous implementation challenges, such as problems tracking and expending money, measuring and reporting program results, promoting reintegration in areas controlled by insurgents, developing structural capacity, and gaining buy-in from provincial and district officials. In March 2016, APRP closed. The U.S. and Afghan governments and the UN have all acknowledged that APRP was largely ineffective and possibly counterproductive.

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Key Findings

  • A primary obstacle to APRP’s success was that the program was implemented in the absence of a political settlement.
  • At the same time, APRP suffered from numerous implementation challenges.
  • There was greater U.S. political and financial support for APRP than for previous reintegration programs.
  • U.S. agencies, particularly DOD, treated APRP mainly as a counterinsurgency tool to fracture and weaken the Taliban. This approach proved ineffective, and undermined wider U.S. and Afghan government efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.
  • Coalition and Afghan forces were unable to provide security guarantees for former combatants participating in APRP.
  • APRP overemphasized economic incentives, and the grievance resolution component of the program was not effectively implemented.
  • Though amnesty was promised to former combatants participating in APRP, a policy and legal framework for amnesty was never established.
  • APRP suffered from poor budget execution and oversight. The $50 million that the U.S. government provided to Afghanistan’s MRRD for reintegration objectives was mostly spent on projects unrelated to reintegration.
  • In addition to the $50 million provided to MRRD, Congress authorized up to $50 million for a DOD support program for APRP. However, only about $9 million of this amount appears to have been spent.
  • Processes to vet combatants for participation in APRP were incomplete and vulnerable to manipulation.
  • A disproportionate number of program participants came from northern and western provinces, indicating problems with implementing the program in areas where the insurgency was most active.
  • Insufficient monitoring and evaluation efforts meant that it was difficult to evaluate program outcomes or substantiate claims about the numbers of genuine insurgents who reintegrated through APRP.

Political Settlement with Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, 2016

DOD photo by Maj. Jillian Torango
DOD photo by Maj. Jillian Torango

The 2016 accord between the Afghan government and Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), led by former mujahedeen warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was hailed by the U.S. and Afghan governments and international donors as a breakthrough in peace negotiations. While progress has been made on provisions of the agreement regarding the release of prisoners and the granting of political leadership positions to HIG members, integration of HIG fighters into security forces—a central HIG demand—has stalled. A combination of factors, such as changes in the recruitment and retirement of security forces and opposition from other factions, have stymied the process.

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Key Findings

  • Despite the 2016 agreement, HIG ex-combatants have not been integrated into Afghan security forces and institutions.
  • The process has been hindered by ongoing reforms in security sector forces, opposition from political factions, and lack of any details on implementation in the agreement.
  • The U.S. government’s willingness to not oppose a peace process with HIG was an important factor in the eventual conclusion of a deal.
  • In turn, the peace process between the Afghan government and HIG provided the venue for discussions about the reintegration of HIG members.
  • The United States’ coordination with the UN on removing Hekmatyar from the UN sanctions list allowed for his return to Afghanistan.

Local Security Agreements: Can They Create Opportunities for Reintegration?

DOD photo

The United States encourages grassroots peace initiatives in Afghanistan, said Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, in June 2018. The interest in bottom-up peace initiatives stems partly from awareness that local efforts to achieve reconciliation had occurred in many parts of the country throughout the post-2001 period. Entirely on their own, district and provincial government officials, local security forces, tribal leaders, and insurgents have made various attempts to reduce violence. Community leaders often sought to secure ceasefires so that residents could resume normal life, including opening schools and shops. While these agreements sometimes achieved meaningful reductions in violence, they were fragile and short-lived. Local tribal dynamics, interference by provincial and national government officials, and Afghan and coalition forces’ emphasis on military objectives all undermined the durability of these local security agreements.

Key Findings

  • In the absence of a political settlement at the national level, local security agreements remained fragile and vulnerable to attacks by spoilers.
  • Local security agreements reduced violence temporarily, but were not conducive to reintegration efforts because they broke down relatively early.
  • Where local agreements included measures related to reintegration, the only path offered to insurgents was integration into the local police force, which did not materialize.
  • Local security agreements broke down for lack of political will, insufficient authority for district officials, and the failure to deliver promised development projects.

Case Studies: Colombia and Somalia

African Union Mission in Somalia photo

There are some lessons learned about what doesn’t work [in reintegration], but we don’t know with confidence what works, under which conditions, and why.

Academic expert on reintegration, 2019

Reintegration in Colombia

Colombian troops listen to U.S. Army General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speak during a visit to Colombia. (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff photo)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff photo

Colombia’s long struggle with a violent insurgency includes nearly 30 years of experience with reintegration efforts. In comparison to Afghanistan, Colombia has a larger economy, a well-developed infrastructure, and relatively strong state institutions, including the security sector. It also has a well-established, mostly self-funded bureaucracy for DDR, which has been able to adapt flexibly to the needs of different types of armed groups. All of these advantages made it possible for the Colombian government to demobilize thousands of combatants. Yet its reintegration efforts have faced significant challenges—illustrating how long reintegration of ex-combatants into civil society can take, how complicated it is, and how even an extensive bureaucracy is not always equal to the challenges posed by shifting political winds, a weak legal economy, and the profits of criminal drug trafficking.

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Key Findings

  • During the conflict, the Colombian government used reintegration programs mainly as a counterinsurgency tool, to attract defectors.
  • After the 2016 peace deal, both the Colombian government and the FARC collaborated to establish and reform structures to implement reintegration efforts.
  • The Colombian government has struggled to mount an effective reintegration effort despite the country’s years of experience with reintegration programming.
  • The government has found it difficult to track, monitor, and provide timely assistance to ex-combatants.
  • The Colombian government’s inability to follow through on reintegration commitments provoked some demobilized combatants to join illegal armed groups.
  • Many local government officials did not know how many ex-combatants lived in their community.
  • They also did not know what type of reintegration assistance would be best suited for the local demobilized population.

Reintegration in Somalia

African Union Mission in Somalia photo
African Union Mission in Somalia photo

Some Afghanistan observers have pointed to Somalia as an instructive example: a violent insurgency at times has controlled large areas of the country, tribal rivalries contribute to conflict, the government is politically fractured and dependent on donor support, and corruption is endemic. Both governments have been unable to defeat insurgent forces, despite significant international and U.S. counterterrorism assistance. After successful efforts to reclaim large swaths of territory from al-Shabaab, the main insurgent group in the country, thousands of al-Shabaab combatants either surrendered or were captured and detained. The Somali government established a reintegration program to rehabilitate and reintegrate these combatants. As in Afghanistan, Somalia’s counterinsurgency effort has shaped the country’s reintegration objectives, activities, and the actors who manage and implement them.

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Key Findings

  • Somalia’s attempts at reintegration are constrained by ongoing conflict, a weak economy, and inadequate, disjointed program implementation.
  • The Somali government’s process for vetting participants lacks transparency and remains vulnerable to arbitrary verdicts.
  • Due to insecurity that limits any opportunity to monitor program participants after they leave the program, assessing the impact of the program is difficult.
  • After ex-combatants leave the program facilities, they are vulnerable to attack by Somali security forces, al-Shabaab fighters, or receiving communities.
  • There are relatively few opportunities for ex-combatants to join the small Somali army and police, for which funding is limited.

Opportunities and Constraints for Reintegration in Afghanistan

DOD photo by Lt. j.g. Joe Painter

While the U.S. government appears to have little appetite for a large reintegration program, senior U.S. officials have said that they want to find ways to accommodate Taliban fighters who approach coalition and Afghan authorities expressing their desire to stop fighting. More broadly, events in 2018 and 2019—including overtures by the Afghan government, a three-day ceasefire in June 2018, civil society peace efforts, and talks between U.S. and Taliban representatives—created hope that a viable intra-Afghan peace process might be within reach. While no official direct talks have yet occurred between the Afghan government and the Taliban, an eventual intra-Afghan peace agreement would necessarily include some restructuring of Afghan civil and military institutions to incorporate the Taliban. And for lasting peace, any reintegration effort would need to include not only Taliban fighters, but also those from various state-aligned and non-state armed groups that have been fighting them.

Key Findings

  • The current environment of ongoing conflict is not conducive to a successful reintegration program. Many unfavorable conditions still persist, including the lack of an intra-Afghan peace agreement, widespread insecurity, political uncertainty, limited economic opportunities, corruption risks, weak institutional capacity, and the diminished presence of international actors.
  • The Afghan government does not currently have a publicly stated reintegration policy or strategy.
  • In public statements about ongoing talks between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives, neither side has mentioned reintegration. However, Taliban officials have made statements indicating interest in the integration of Taliban fighters into security forces.
  • The future of Afghanistan’s security forces, including any arrangement to integrate former Taliban fighters and other combatants into those forces, will likely be one of the most contentious issues to be negotiated between the Afghan government and Taliban. Failure to adequately resolve these issues could threaten the implementation of a peace agreement.
  • There is only limited information on the views of the Taliban rank and file regarding reintegration issues, but some research indicates they struggle to imagine a life outside the insurgency, and want to retain their movement’s military power.

Key Report Findings

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Justin Williams


Canadian Government photo


U.S. Marine Corps photo by Justin Williams

Recommendations Regarding Reintegration without a Peace Agreement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban

Recommendation to the Congress

Recommendations to the DOD, State, and USAID

Recommendations Regarding Reintegration after a Peace Agreement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban

Recommendations to the Congress

Recommendations to the DOD, State, Treasury, and USAID

Matters for Consideration for the Afghan Government