On October 13, 2013, in his annual message marking the holiday of Eid al-Adha, Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar offered an olive branch to Afghans who oppose the Taliban, saying that the Taliban would welcome them into their ranks.[1] Media coverage of the statement largely ignored these words, instead focusing on Mullah Omar’s denunciation of the upcoming presidential elections and the prospect of international forces remaining in Afghanistan post-2014.[2] Since 2010, however, the Taliban have increasingly emphasized their efforts to recruit Afghan government officials, particularly members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This includes repeated public statements detailing an amnesty program, which provides forgiveness for these individuals’ previous support for the government and the opportunity to join the insurgency without retribution. The Taliban have not always pursued such initiatives. For instance, in 2006, Taliban public statements indicated that they preferred to bring Afghan government supporters “to justice” rather than offering them an opportunity for engagement.

There is a limited understanding of the evolution of the Taliban’s campaign to steal manpower from their enemies because Western forces have mostly focused on analyzing and preventing Taliban attacks. This article, therefore, identifies how the Taliban’s efforts to recruit and extend amnesty to Afghan government officials and members of the security forces have expanded since 2010. It finds that these activities are becoming an increasingly important component of the Taliban’s strategic plan for recapturing control of Afghanistan, as evinced by the creation of a senior Recruitment and Amnesty Commission to oversee the effort. As such, it is a strategy that warrants greater research, not only with regard to the current conflict, but for insurgencies globally.

Limited Understanding of Insurgent Efforts to Recruit Government Officials
Insurgencies throughout history have sought to recruit from the local populace, particularly among young men. A body of research has been devoted to understanding how insurgents accomplish this, and numerous academic models are available to estimate which civilians are the most likely to be recruited into insurgent ranks. Less attention, however, has been placed on understanding how an insurgency specifically targets and mobilizes recruits from within government forces—despite the cues from authorities on insurgency such as Mao Tse-tung.[3]

Within Afghanistan, this lack of attention could be problematic for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as the Taliban have increased their efforts to extend amnesty to Afghan government officials, even as the ANSF has taken the lead in providing security. The Taliban’s efforts to recruit Afghan government officials have been overshadowed by their efforts to attack or intimidate such officials. Yet some data released by ISAF indicates that as many as 5,000 Afghan soldiers are quitting their posts every month, calling into question the ability of the Afghan government to sustain its forces.[4] How much of an impact the Taliban’s recruitment and amnesty programs have on this attrition is unclear. The Taliban leadership’s increased emphasis on these programs during the past year, however, indicates that they see them as effective.

Taliban Increasing Emphasis on Amnesty and Recruitment
Since 2010, the Taliban have called on government officials to join the insurgency with increasing frequency. This includes offers of amnesty for officials who wanted to either quit their positions, stay in the government to support the Taliban, or seek new positions with the insurgency. This has not always been a tactic emphasized by the Taliban. For instance, in his Eid al-Fitr message in 2006, Taliban leader Mullah Omar said of government officials: “We will never give them exit. They will be brought to Islamic justice.”[5]

Exactly why the Taliban changed their position remains unclear. The new strategy, however, has clear advantages. First, “turning” Afghan government officials and enemy soldiers is more cost effective than attacking them. Second, recruiting from the ANSF weakens the Taliban’s most enduring enemy while simultaneously providing the insurgency with well trained (and possibly equipped) recruits. Finally, the strategy has the potential to foster or inspire “insider attacks.”

In 2010, the Taliban’s senior leadership published an updated version of the layeha, or code of conduct, which included guidance regarding the offering of amnesty to those who surrendered to the Taliban. This was the first known instance of Taliban leaders providing specific instructions concerning the recruitment of government officials and ANSF soldiers to the lower echelons of the Taliban leadership.[6] This was followed by the formalization and expansion of amnesty and recruitment initiatives in 2012. At this time, the Taliban’s recruitment and amnesty effort received a new level of command emphasis when the Taliban leadership announced the creation of a special commission tasked with handling these issues, referred to as the Taliban Recruitment and Amnesty Commission.[7]

The Taliban have publicized the defection of government soldiers and police to its ranks since early 2012. Over the past year, however, the organization’s messaging has increasingly attributed these defections to the efforts of the Recruitment and Amnesty Commission. This commission was highlighted in the Taliban’s Khalid bin Walid campaign announcement in April 2013, which stated: “During this year’s Khalid bin Walid operation, all the stipulations, guidance and statements of Call and Guidance/Recruitment Commission will also be exercised in which protection has been guaranteed for those workers of the stooge regime who surrender or join up with the mujahidin just as the life, property and honor of the large group of people was protected who left the ranks of the enemy and joined up with mujahidin during the previous year.”[8]

After announcing the Recruitment and Amnesty Commission’s creation on May 3, 2012, the Taliban’s press releases mentioned it an average of 1.57 times per month for the rest of 2012.[9] In 2013, the Taliban have mentioned the commission an average of 3.18 times per month, marking a 103% increase.[10]

Of particular note are several monthly summaries published by the Taliban which advertise the commission’s success by enumerating the purported number of defectors the Taliban have received into their ranks that month.[11] In the early months of 2013, the Taliban’s public statements also sought to associate insider attacks—then a major theme of Taliban propaganda—with the actions of the commission.[12]

Analyzing Taliban Public Statements
An analysis of the Taliban’s public messaging regarding these recruitment efforts indicates that the campaign has two basic goals. The first goal is to highlight the Taliban’s increasing strength and organizational depth and to contrast it with the government’s weakness. Publicizing the defection of government officials, soldiers, and policemen contributes to an overall narrative that portrays the Taliban’s power as steadily increasing while the government’s power weakens.

Additionally, since 2006 the Taliban have regularly announced the formation of new administrative bodies and published in-depth interviews with commission heads, “governors” of various districts and provinces, and other insurgent leaders. Such messaging helps propagate the image of the Taliban as a sophisticated, coherent organization with specialized departments all answering to a central authority. The emphasis the Taliban currently place on the actions of the Recruitment and Amnesty Commission should be seen in this context. The Taliban have an obvious interest in communicating these messages to both an international and an Afghan audience—including, of course, to more potential defectors in the government and in the security forces. The Taliban’s desire to reach an international audience is underscored by the publication of an article about the rising number of government defectors in the Taliban’s Arabic-language magazine al-Sumud in June 2013.[13] The video posted on the Taliban’s official website on March 28, 2013, meanwhile, was specifically addressed to “those Afghans who work with foreign invaders.”[14]

Although it is difficult to say with certainty, a second goal of the Taliban’s messaging campaign may be to publicize the work of the Recruitment and Amnesty Commission to a Taliban audience, reiterating the senior leadership’s policy of recruiting from the ranks of the government and the security forces, and building internal support for those policies. Stories of government officials, soldiers, and policemen joining the insurgency are undoubtedly encouraging to most Taliban commanders and fighters. Nevertheless, there are also strong reasons that Taliban commanders may be reluctant to recruit from the government or the security forces. The act of approaching a potential recruit exposes the recruiter to the threat of capture or death. Individuals defecting from the government or especially the security forces may in fact be double agents.[15] On an emotional level, Taliban commanders may be personally reluctant to welcome former enemies into their ranks. The increased emphasis on the Recruitment and Amnesty Commission in the Taliban’s public messaging, therefore, may also be an attempt to quell some internal controversy.

Insurgents look to overthrow a government through a variety of means, including both armed conflict and non-violent efforts aimed at undermining an opponent’s authority and legitimacy. With regard to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, much is known about the methods and tactics the Taliban use against the government militarily. Less is known, however, about how they use subversion to diminish the effectiveness of their opponents. As the Taliban shift their focus to the ANSF (which they likely perceive to be their greatest and most enduring military challenge in the post-ISAF period), they are embracing a variety of methods, including recruitment and amnesty initiatives, to undermine the ANSF. As a consequence of the limited focus on non-violent Taliban initiatives, it is likely that the Afghan government has done little to counteract the Taliban’s recruitment and amnesty efforts.

Although it is difficult to determine exactly how much the Taliban’s efforts to subvert the ANSF through recruitment and amnesty initiatives are affecting ANSF readiness, the initiatives could play a role in causing attrition. This could become increasingly problematic for units with low morale, or confidence, particularly as the ISAF withdrawal comes to a close. Members of the Afghan government will likely do a cost-benefit analysis of the Taliban program compared to their current positions. Should they perceive that joining the Taliban or at least complying with their demands is more advantageous, they could change their allegiances. As such, monitoring how the Taliban proceed with this line of effort could provide valuable insight into not only the progress of the insurgency, but the viability and sustainability of the ANSF.

Jami Forbes is an analyst with the Department of the Army who specializes in studies regarding southern Afghanistan. She has traveled to Afghanistan on several occasions, and most recently spent several months in Kandahar Province.

Brian Dudley is an analyst with the Department of the Army who specializes in insurgent messaging. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1993.

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or any of its subordinate commands.

[1] Mullah Omar’s statement read, “We call on all those who support the invaders, or who have joined their ranks but not deliberately, to disband their support like thousands of your fellows have done so far. The vast embrace of the Islamic Emirate is always open to you. Is it not rational to side with your people where your death and life will become a symbol of pride for all, instead of losing your life in the ranks of the non-believers, where you will lose both your faith and your worldly life?”

[2] Bill Chappell, “Taliban Rejection of US-Afghan Security Deal,” National Public Radio, October 14, 2013.

[3] In On Guerrilla Warfare, Mao outlined the benefits of turning opposition forces into recruits. He wrote, “it is always possible to produce disaffection in their (enemy) ranks, and we must increase our propaganda efforts and foment mutinies among such troops. Immediately after mutinying, they must be received into our ranks and organized. The concord of the leaders and the assent of the men must be gained, and the units be rebuilt politically and reorganized militarily. Once this has been accomplished, they become successful guerrilla units. In regards to this type of unit, it may be said that political work among them is of the utmost importance.”

[4] Brian Brady and Jonathan Owen, “NATO Alarm Over Afghan Crisis: Loss of Recruits Threatens Security as Handover Looms,” Independent, March 31, 2013.

[5] “Taliban Leader Eid Message,” Afghan Islamic Press, October 22, 2006.

[6] Thomas Johnson and Matthew DuPee, “Analyzing the New Taliban Code of Conduct,” Central Asian Survey 31:1 (2012).

[7] “Statement of Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate Regarding the Inception of al-Farooq Spring Operation,” Voice of Jihad, May 3, 2012.

[8] “Statement of Leadership Council of Islamic Emirate Regarding ‘Khalid bin Waleed’ Spring Operation,” Voice of Jihad, April 27, 2013.

[9] This is according to analysis of the statements released by the Afghan Taliban via its official website.

[10] Ibid.

[11] In a January 2013 statement via its publication al-Sumud, the Afghan Taliban claimed that 1,300 Afghan government officials had left their positions as a result of the efforts of the Recruitment and Amnesty Commission. Separate monthly accounts of those the Taliban claimed it had inspired to defect have oscillated between tens and hundreds of individuals.

[12] “Zabiullah Mujahid: The Invaders Are On Practical Abscondence [sic],” Voice of Jihad, January 5, 2013; “Extensive al-Sumud Interview Given With the Official Spokesman of the Islamic Emirate,” al-Sumud, January 15, 2013; Imran Khalil, “New Film Dawat Released by al-Hijra Studio,” Voice of Jihad, March 29, 2013.

[13] “Extensive al-Sumud Interview Given With the Official Spokesman of the Islamic Emirate,” al-Sumud, January 15, 2013.

[14] Imran Khalil, “New Film Dawat Released by al-Hijra Studio,” Voice of Jihad, March 29, 2013.

[15] These possibilities and the ways that militant groups might avoid them are considered in Thomas Hegghammer, “The Recruiter’s Dilemma: Signalling and Rebel Recruitment Tactics,” Journal of Peace Research 50:1 (2012).

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