Four international programs designed to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate militias in Afghanistan since 2001 have largely failed. They have instead largely reinforced existing power relations. Perhaps their gravest impact has been to deepen patterns of political exclusion that underlie much of the violence that have driven support for the insurgency. Demilitarization, this report makes clear, is only part of a wider political process, both with Taliban leaders and between pro-government factions. Until prospects for such a process exist, no demilitarization effort is likely to contribute to peace in Afghanistan.

Summary

  • Four internationally funded disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs initiated after 2003—two targeting government-aligned militias and two targeting insurgents—have failed to make Afghanistan more secure. Instead, society has become more militarized.
  • Many shortcomings stem from the fact that the programs were shaped by the post-Bonn political context.
  • Tension has been acute between building capable and accountable state institutions in a chronically weak state on the one hand and hunting terrorists or fighting insurgents by rearming local militias on the other.
  • Western powers tended to use DDR programs and language to demobilize specific armed groups for perceived short-term political or security gains while rearming and protecting others.
  • Programs targeted different groups at different times. Commanders understandably resisted demobilizing their militias as they realized that their rivals would remain armed.
  • Powerful commanders used DDR programs to weaken rivals as they secured government positions or rearmed as anti-Taliban militias. This approach reinforced factionalization and strengthened the Taliban.
  • In sum, DDR programs reflected existing power dynamics and deepened political exclusion, which are among the main drivers of violence and support for the insurgency.
  • Full disarmament in Afghanistan is unrealistic, but a peace process with the Taliban might at least reduce levels of informal rearmament and pave the way to holding the worst criminals accountable, provided Northern Alliance power brokers are brought along.
  • Key to any deal will be the support of mid-level commanders whose lead fighters usually follow.

About the Report

This report examines why internationally funded programs to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate militias since 2001 have not made Afghanistan more secure and why its society has instead become more militarized. Supported by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) as part of its broader program of study on the intersection of political, economic, and conflict dynamics in Afghanistan, the report is based on some 250 interviews with Afghan and Western officials, tribal leaders, villagers, Afghan National Security Force and militia commanders, and insurgent commanders and fighters, conducted primarily between 2011 and 2014.

About the Authors

Deedee Derksen has conducted research into Afghan militias since 2006. A former correspondent for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, she has since 2011 pursued a PhD on the politics of disarmament and rearmament of militias at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. She is grateful to Patricia Gossman, Anatol Lieven, Mike Martin, Joanna Nathan, Scott Smith, and several anonymous reviewers for their comments and to everyone who agreed to be interviewed or helped in other ways.

Related Publications

11 Things to Know: Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal

11 Things to Know: Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal

Thursday, June 17, 2021

By: Andrew Wilder; Scott Worden

U.S. and NATO troops are rapidly executing President Biden’s policy of a complete withdrawal of American troops and contactors supporting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) by a deadline of September 11. Based on the rate of progress, the last American soldier could depart before the end of July. The decision to withdraw without a cease-fire or a framework for a political agreement between the Taliban and the government caught Afghans and regional countries by surprise. The Taliban have capitalized on the moment to seize dozens of districts and project an air of confidence and victory.  

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes; Fragility & Resilience

Kabul School Bombing Reinforces Fears Over Post-Withdrawal Security

Kabul School Bombing Reinforces Fears Over Post-Withdrawal Security

Thursday, May 20, 2021

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Fatema Ahmadi

For the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul, home to the Hazara minority group, the devastating May 8 bombing outside a school is part of a disturbing trend of attacks in the area. The bombing killed at least 85 and injured around 150 — mostly young girls — and coincided with concerns of escalating violence as the United States withdraws combat troops from Afghanistan. Although no group has claimed responsibility, the Islamic State group (ISIS) has perpetrated similar attacks in the past and many suspect it was again responsible. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Peace Processes

Even After Withdrawal, U.S. Retains Leverage Over Taliban

Even After Withdrawal, U.S. Retains Leverage Over Taliban

Thursday, April 29, 2021

By: Karen Decker

President Biden’s announcement that U.S. troops would withdraw by September 11 has many Afghans and observers warning of a quick collapse of the Afghan state and a new phase in the country’s civil war. Without minimizing the challenges ahead, the United States should avoid any self-fulfilling prophecy of imminent collapse by insisting that the only future for Afghanistan is one that advances the gains of the past 20 years. As troops begin to depart, it is an opportune time to examine three forms of leverage the United States has to promote a political settlement.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

View All Publications