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

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

By: Ahmad Shuja Jamal

Since 2013, as many as 50,000 Afghans have fought in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun, a pro-Assad force organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Based on field interviews with former fighters and their families, this Special Report examines the motivations of members of the Afghan Shia Hazara communities who joined the Fatemiyoun as well as the economic and political challenges of reintegrating them into Afghan society.

Civilian-Military Relations; Fragility & Resilience

What Can Make Displaced People More Vulnerable to Extremism?

What Can Make Displaced People More Vulnerable to Extremism?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Rahmatullah Amiri; Sadaf Lakhani

As the international community works to prevent new generations of radicalization in war-torn regions, debate focuses often on the problem of people uprooted from their homes—a population that has reached a record high of 68.5 million people. Public discussion in Europe, the United States and elsewhere includes the notion that displaced peoples are at high risk of being radicalized by extremist groups such as ISIS. Scholars and peacebuilding practitioners have rightly warned against such generalizations, underscoring the need to learn which situations may make uprooted people vulnerable to radicalization. A new USIP study from Afghanistan notes the importance of specific conditions faced by displaced people—and it offers indications suggesting the importance for policy of supporting early interventions to stabilize the living conditions of displaced people after they return home.

Violent Extremism

Afghanistan Talks: No Women, No Peace

Afghanistan Talks: No Women, No Peace

Friday, March 1, 2019

By: Belquis Ahmadi

As talks between the U.S. and the Taliban raise hopes for peace in Afghanistan, the country’s women fear another—and related—possibility: That their hard-won rights to participate in the nation’s political and economic life could again be washed away by the Taliban’s rigid views on gender.

Gender; Peace Processes

Intra-Afghan Peace Negotiations: How Might They Work

Intra-Afghan Peace Negotiations: How Might They Work

Friday, February 22, 2019

By: Sean Kane

Recent positive developments in the Afghan peace process have renewed hopes that the country’s 17-year-old conflict could come to a close. Direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, however, are likely to involve complex constitutional questions. This Special Report provides...

Peace Processes

View All Publications