TALIBAN PRISONER RELEASE AND REINTEGRATION: A PILOT STUDY
This paper presents the findings of a pilot study conducted by the Heart of Asia Society investigating aspects of the social and economic reintegration of the Taliban prisoners released in the spring and summer of 2020. In-depth interviews with a sample of 37 released prisoners provide a glimpse of some of the economic, social, and political challenges encountered and will guide a further scaled-up study to be conducted in the coming months. The 5000+ Taliban prisoners released by the Afghan Government represent the first instance of large-scale prisoner release in the past two decades, albeit agreed to for the purpose of facilitating the start of the Afghan Peace Negotiations (APN). Exploring the resources and risks they have encountered provides insight into the potential challenges of more comprehensive efforts at prisoner exchange.
The sample, too small to provide statistically meaningful results, nevertheless provides insight into released prisoners from throughout the country, primarily the South, and from a range of education and economic backgrounds. Interviewees were imprisoned anywhere from several to a dozen years and were arrested at a wide range of ages, including some arrested while they were under 18. Due to sampling methods, all interviewees contacted in this study were, at the time of the interview, staying at home, away from the battlefield, purportedly at the instruction of the Taliban, given directly or through intermediaries. About a third claimed they were not and had never been affiliated with the Taliban. Of those who openly were, most were willing to return to the field if asked. About half of those questioned lived in Taliban controlled areas at the time of interview, half in Governmentcontrolled areas, with the latter more frequently reporting harassment and feeling unsafe.
Most prisoners received some form of monetary compensation from the Afghan Government at the time of release, and many reported receiving support in money or goods during imprisonment, with some reporting Taliban support for their families, though this was largely mentioned as a form of support more likely to occur with higher ranking inmates. Beyond the disbursement of a lump sum upon release to a significant portion of prisoners, no standard system for Taliban assistance during or following prison terms could be discerned. Many prisoners self-reported poor economic circumstances for themselves and their families, including not only the loss of wages but loss of land while they were in prison. Released prisoners reported poor treatment in prison and, a common complaint, lack of medical care, resulting in what many of them spoke of as chronic medical issues at the time of contact.
Overall, most of the released prisoners interviewed in this pilot study support the USTaliban agreement and the ongoing talks in Doha, with a number of justifications presented, some harkening back to early Islamic parallels. Interviewees criticized not only the Afghan Government, but also the Taliban, typically for perceived lack of assistance or support during or following imprisonment, and only occasionally for their negotiations with the US or the Afghan Government. Most interviewed stated some openness to amnesty for Afghan Government forces following a peace deal, with the noted exception of the Afghan Local Police (ALP). Many interviewees cited issues of personal enmity, corruption, and abusive behavior among the ALP and singled them out as a group that would pose a danger to peace at the community level.
Of particular concern are the younger demographic of prisoners, those who were arrested when young and spent much of their coming-of-age in prison, leaving them without the social and economic skills to survive as non-combatants. Among preliminary recommendations that can be made from this small sample size would be focused attention on the psychosocial welfare of this younger demographic.