US Rehab for Taliban Rebels – Finally, a Carrot in the Carrot & Stick?

The United States Department of Defense has announced plans to rehabilitate Taliban rebels in Afghanistan willing to lay down arms. While this may seem like the carrot in the “carrot and stick approach” we desperately need, it is still too early to say much about it. The question this move begs is simple: what is more effective? the carrot or the stick? More often than not, the carrot and the stick combined is, without a doubt, effective. There’s a reason why economists and management gurus swear it works wonders. Although, it may appear that the problem we’re dealing with has some peculiar issues that would indicate otherwise.

Eliminating the Taliban from Afghanistan or at least mitigating their tyranny is a good end to strive for. While dealing with problems of a military nature, our general tendency happens to be to meet force with more force. This general rule (which it appears to be) of human nature stemming from a survival instinct is effective in its own way, focusing on it alone though as a strategy risks missing the wood for the trees. The naked strength of the State alone rarely solves many problems – it may allow for some short-term reprieve, but the spectre of the complications almost always eventually returns. We need other necessarily non-military measures to act as force multipliers in this “war” on the Taliban. For too long have the Afghan government and the US attacked the Taliban and been counter-attacked by it. This military conflict has been reminiscent of a cat and mouse game faintly resembling Tom and Jerry. And while this long-drawn conflict has been periodically punctuated by peace talks, they have not really yielded much.

Across the world, many descend into a life of delinquency because that is their best choice. For many deprived of their basic needs, with little or no avenues of education or legal employment, a life of crime is the only (or the best) way to have a fighting chance to survive. Delinquency is therefore often the result of misaligned incentives. While the law can, by the threat of sanctions backed by the physical might of the State, keep this delinquency in check, eliminating the root cause – a lack of education and opportunities for legal employment – is far more effective. To bring existing delinquents out of a life of crime, positive incentives like the promise of a good life and job opportunities work far better than force and punishment alone. By this line of reasoning, this US DoD policy seems right. Taliban rebels can be categorized essentially as delinquents. To bring them out of a life of crime, positive incentives are therefore the need of the hour.

But then, are Taliban rebels more than mere delinquents? While it may be tempting to categorise Taliban rebels as mere delinquents like any other, it may also be argued – with good reason – that they are far more than just that. The distinction between terrorists and insurgents vis-à-vis the garden-variety of delinquents exists for a very good reason. The former is usually distinguished from the latter by a far higher degree of unbridled motivation and enthusiasm – much like how a Special Forces soldier is distinguished from the ordinary soldier. Therefore, Taliban rebels should, theoretically, be much less receptive to positive incentives such as these intended to draw them out of a life of insurgency and into civilian life. Their reasons for choosing a life of insurgency and belligerence are not driven solely by impoverishment and unemployment, for there is no denying that the Taliban has been a ruthless terrorist organisation with a sinister agenda.

With both these factors in mind, will this US DoD policy work? Certainly, it may be helpful drawing out the “weakest” of the Taliban rebels. However, ultimately, whether the number of rebels it does bring out of a life of insurgency will be substantial is anyone’s guess. It’s not time to count our chickens yet, they are nowhere close to hatching. But it suffices to say that this US DoD policy is a long needed “carrot” in a largely “stick” approach. It is definitely better, though the jury is still out on how much better. Meanwhile, Afghan security forces and US troops must continue the unhappy task of continuing their military offensive against the Taliban, even after Trump’s withdrawal decision, for this policy can only ever complement the use of force, not substitute it.


Sagnik Sarkar

A law student who believes that every problem can be solved. Will and skill are necessary preconditions.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.