While considerable disagreement exists on precise steps for creating a more stable Afghanistan, most key international policymakers now agree that any successful strategy there, and in Pakistan, hinges on the ability to mainstream anti-government fighters and potential fighters into the political and economic systems in those countries.
That was reflected in the communiqué that emerged from last week's London summit on Afghanistan, which called for, among other things, reintegrating Taliban who cut ties with al-Qaida and other extremist networks. But more attention needs to be given to the difficulties involved with such an approach, which will likely prove extremely challenging and controversial.
Many Afghan and Pakistani officials, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani NWFP Governor Oweis Ghani, agree that high unemployment and poverty drives many young Pashtun men on both sides of the border to take up weapons, largely for monetary compensation. Many of these same officials agree that most of the population in the Pashtun region view Taliban militants as an obstacle to peace, not the solution. Therefore, given jobs, vocational training, and economic opportunities, Pashtun youth will opt for integration into Afghan and Pakistani society at the expense of Taliban, al-Qaida and other extremist networks. Although planned reintegration has for now only been formally announced on the Afghan side of the border, the Pakistani government will likely follow suit, particularly if the program begins to yield results.
One key factor for successful reintegration will be determining not only the sincerity of those fighters who lay down their weapons, but in distinguishing between these less dangerous Taliban and those who maintain an undying allegiance to extremists groups. This will be more complex than just dividing them into "good" Taliban, "bad" Taliban, and the fence-sitters in between, as some have suggested. As the reintegration process takes place, one can expect a range of factors -- including regional and local intrigues, individual settling of old scores, hidden agendas, and ex-fighters who gather intelligence for the continuing militancy -- to complicate the effort.
Instead, analysts and policymakers must adopt a more nuanced approach to reintegration, one that begins with a better understanding the nature of the Taliban.
Throughout most of the history of the Indian sub-continent, taliban merely meant "student," with talibs nothing more than students at Sunni madrasas (seminary schools). These students, and their madrasas, were inherently non-violent, even at times when religious or sectarian violence spiraled out of control. In the centuries leading up to the 1990s, the vast majority of these students remained innocuous members of society, teaching the Quran to children, heading mosques, or taking up other livelihoods, such as being shop owners or merchants. Even today, throughout the Arab world, every student is a talib and every government school is commonly referred to as a madrasa.
Only after 1994, with the rise in Afghanistan of Mullah Omar, who drew talibs from Pakistani madrasas, did the terms Taliban and madrasa take on a violent connotation. With very few exceptions, Taliban are Pashtun and Sunni Muslims. But in the Pashtun-speaking northwest of Pakistan, there are many levels of Taliban, ranging from students studying at madrasas that do not promote violence but support the government of Pakistan, to criminal gangs who have never studied in a madrasa but have adopted the name Taliban to instill fear, to youth who are recruited or forced to join militant ranks, to brutally violent militants who fight for political or religious convictions.
It is fair to link the last group to the network of al-Qaida foreign militants. Likewise, security officials and analysts frequently label foreign fighters -- such Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and others who come to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- as al-Qaida.
On the other hand, in Pakistan, many Taliban leaders who have spoken out in favor of the government and against car bombings and violence have themselves become targets of anti-government Taliban militants. This past summer, a suicide bomber killed Sarfraz Naeemi, a leading cleric and head of a Lahore madrasa who was also an outspoken critic of the militant Taliban. At about the same time, Qari Zainuddin Mehsud -- a militant Taliban leader who broke ranks with Baitullah Mehsud -- publicly pledged to join forces with the Pakistani military to fight Baitullah and his militant followers, only to be killed a few days later in D.I. Khan.
Recently Bruce Riedel, former chief adviser to President Barack Obama on Afghanistan, stated that it is a "fairy tale" to believe the U.S. can separate al-Qaida from the Taliban. This may be true for the most loyal of Taliban militants. But in fact, just as many Taliban are not fighters, many Taliban fighters have few or no ideological links to al-Qaida. If a well-designed reintegration program proves to provide viable and sustainable economic opportunities, then many Taliban militants will break ties with hardcore Taliban and al-Qaida, and gravitate towards mainstream Afghan society.
The U.S. could do a lot to reverse the growing anti-American sentiment among local Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan by respecting and working within the traditional madrasa system, and demonstrating a more nuanced recognition of the various manifestations of the Taliban. Moreover, Western policymakers could use the same approach to guide the rehabilitation and reintegration of former Taliban militants. The challenge lies less in separating Taliban fighters from al-Qaida, and more in designing a strong reintegration system that offers retraining and economic opportunities for young men, within a larger sustainable economic development framework.
Muslims in the region and around the world will scrutinize the implementation of the stabilization package, so it is crucial that the West score early successes. It can do so by demonstrating the necessary respect for religious and cultural traditions, while providing a well-designed reintegration and rehabilitation strategy that offers young Pashtun men alternatives to violence.
**Craig Davis is a specialist on the Muslim world. After earning a dual Ph.D. at Indiana University, he managed livelihoods and civil society projects for the U.S. Department of Labor and USAID in Iraq and Pakistan. He also served as director of the Civil Society Division for the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) in Washington, D.C., and spent several years working, studying, researching and living in South Asia. The views represented in this article are entirely his own.