FORWARD OPERATING BASE GERONIMO, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
A main goal in the War on Terror has been to hunt down leaders of enemy forces, but during an Afghanistan National Army-led reintegration shura a former Taliban commander was released from custody and welcomed back into Nawa, June 1.
Hussein Akhundzada, a Taliban leader in the Nawa area responsible for the production of improvised explosive devices and recruiting fighters, was released by an ANA general after months in detainment when it was determined he was no longer a threat.
Both government and tribal leaders vouched for Akhundzada’s intent to reintegrate into the area as a peaceful citizen during the brief meeting. His reintegration is only the fourth in Afghanistan.
“In any counterinsurgency, eventually this has to be a part of the peace process,” Lt. Col. Jeffrey C. Holt, commanding officer, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, said.
After the shura Akhundzada spoke with Lt. Col. Matt Baker, commanding officer, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, and Holt, whose battalion is set to take over 1/3’s area of operations in the coming days.
“He vowed to participate in the peace and prosperity that the people of Nawa enjoy,” Holt, from Dallas, said. “The greatest challenge is how do you reintegrate the Taliban into the peace process? We’re brave enough to do it in Nawa. The question is, how do you spread that? We know this guy believes that we’re here to help people prosper and make them more self-sufficient.”
The U.S. deemed the former enemy commander was no longer a threat, but ultimately it was the decision of Afghan leaders to allow him to reintegrate.
“An Afghan general released him today,” Holt said. “This was an Afghan-led shura. The only Marine who spoke at it, for a few words, was Lt. Col. Baker. It’s great to see that the Afghans are taking so much of a role in all of our lines of operation: leading patrols, leading governance. Instead of doing or enabling, we find ourselves watching — with pride.”
For many, the question remains: how can you trust Akhundzada and other enemy leaders won’t return to old ways after reintegrating?
Holt has an answer.
“Don’t give him a choice,” he said. “Give him a job. He needs work just like any other guy. Give him whatever he needs: security, success, anything possible to make a better life.”
Holt believes it’s possible for the Taliban to move away from extremism and become a legitimate political party, one that supports the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and cited the Sunnis in Western Iraq as an example of how reintegration can be successful.
“I hope the Taliban understands that we’re here to help the people and that includes them — that includes the Taliban as long as they want to reintegrate,” Holt said.
The 3/3 commander understands there is risk in integration, but said you have to make peace. He said he isn’t ready to call the reintegration of one member of the Taliban a tipping point in the war, but he is hopeful.
“Without hope we have no future,” Holt said. “It is our hope they choose peace.
“I think they’re tired of war.”