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

Will a Prisoner Swap with the Taliban Push the Afghan Peace Process Forward?

Will a Prisoner Swap with the Taliban Push the Afghan Peace Process Forward?

Thursday, November 21, 2019

By: Scott Worden

It’s been over two months since President Trump announced a halt to U.S.-Taliban peace talks. In a move that could revive the moribund peace process, the Afghan government and Taliban completed a prisoner exchange that had been announced last week but then delayed. An American and Australian professor held by the Taliban were freed in return for three senior Taliban figures. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s September 28 presidential election remains undecided, further complicating peace efforts. USIP’s Scott Worden looks at what impact the prisoner exchange could have on the peace process, how regional actors have sought to fill the vacuum in the absence of the U.S.-led talks and the connection between negotiations and the election.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Insurgent Bureaucracy: How the Taliban Makes Policy

Insurgent Bureaucracy: How the Taliban Makes Policy

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

By: Ashley Jackson; Rahmatullah Amiri

The system of shadow Taliban governance and the experiences of civilians subject to it are well documented. The policies that guide this governance and the factors that contribute to them, however, are not. This report examines how the Taliban make and implement policy. Based on more than a hundred interviews and previously unreleased Taliban documents, this report offers rare insight into Taliban decision-making processes and the factors that influence them.

Type: Peaceworks

Global Policy

First Lady Rula Ghani on Afghan Women’s Consensus

First Lady Rula Ghani on Afghan Women’s Consensus

Friday, November 15, 2019

By: USIP Staff

As Afghans, the United States and the international community seek an end to the war in Afghanistan, the country’s first lady, Rula Ghani, says thousands of Afghan women nationwide have expressed a clear consensus on two points. They insist that the war needs to end, and that the peace to follow must continue to build opportunities for women. The single greatest step to advance Afghan women’s cause is education and training to build their professional capacities, Ghani told an audience at USIP.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Peace Processes

Scott Smith on What’s Next in the Afghan Peace Process

Scott Smith on What’s Next in the Afghan Peace Process

Thursday, November 14, 2019

By: Scott Smith

The Afghan government and Taliban announced an agreement on a prisoner exchange this week, but it remains unclear what comes next. With the presidential election still undecided, “The question is if this is the beginning of a new peace strategy on the part of President Ghani, will he be the president a few months from now to carry that strategy forward?” asks USIP’s Scott Smith.

Type: Podcast

Peace Processes

View All Publications