Paul Pillar

A Tool Against the Taliban Rusts

The New York Times reports today that a program to entice low-level Taliban to abandon the insurgency has stalled amid bickering and funding problems.  This news suggests the following three observations.

First, to allow this program to become "almost dead," in the words of an official at Afghanistan's Peace and Reconciliation Commission, amid an escalating effort at counterinsurgency is one of the most flagrant examples of a non-cost-effective approach to dealing with a security problem.  The U.S. portion of the counterinsurgency is now consuming about $100 billion annually.  There are no reliable figures concerning how many Taliban fighters are active, but the nearest thing to an official estimate was a figure of 25,000 that NATO furnished late last year.  That makes about $4 million per year for each individual fighter who is the target of the counterinsurgency.  Although it is impossible to put a single price tag on what it would take through nonmilitary means to entice Taliban fighters to leave the fight (and one must allow for the small number of genuine ideological fanatics among them), take as a reference point that Afghanistan's GDP per capita is about $1,000. (That's based on purchasing power parity; use of official exchange rates would make it about half that.)  It doesn't require higher mathematics to conclude that a reintegration program that can entice a whole lot of Taliban would cost a pittance compared to the counterinisurgency.  In fact, even if one bought off Taliban by subsidizing lavish life styles far beyond any reintegration program and any wild Taliban dream, it would still be a bargain compared to the counterinsurgency.

Second, this program evidently is another part of the effort in Afghanistan where the allies are not fully stepping up to the plate.  Pledges for financial support have come from the likes of Germany and Japan, but their checks are still in the mail.  The Times report indicates that the only ally that has fully met its commitment is Estonia, which paid $64,000.

Third, the program is another part of the effort in Afghanistan that has become embroiled in ethnic or other dimensions in which the United States has no stake, other than in the sense that these dimensions have made the stabilization of Afghanistan even more difficult.  Most of the resistance to energizing the reintegration program comes from non-Pashtun Afghan parliamentarians and officials who, put quite simply, don't like doing nice things to Pashtuns.