What Do the Taliban and Our Youth Have in Common?

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Getty Images

For those checking in on the conflict in Afghanistan, the latest buzzword on the war isn’t “surge” any longer, it’s “population-centric.” Despite the recent civilian fatalities of Operation Moshtarak, U.S. officials continue to emphasize a strategy of reduced combat and increased reconciliation with the Afghan community. This includes supporting President Hamid Karzai’s overarching plan to curb insurgency by reaching out to Afghanistan’s “disenchanted brothers.” Previously ineffective strategies for stemming violence—killing and capturing “the enemy”—have been replaced with a more inclusive approach: reintegration.


In the United States, where disenchantment and violence in some areas can be just as easy to come by, reintegration strategies are also gaining traction.  

With endorsement from the Obama administration, Karzai’s reintegration program, announced last month, has received promises of funding from Japan and Britain, among others. Collectively, these donor countries have pledged some $140 million to recruit low-level Taliban from the battlefield with promises of employment, cash and community-development opportunities.

They’ve used similar programs in countries like Nepal and Liberia. Though success is not guaranteed, this innovative approach to violence offers marginalized citizens in conflict-ridden communities a chance to regain their social footing without bearing arms. In Afghanistan, reintegration has been touted as "an economic alternative to those who have none.”  

Some American youth could soon benefit from similar strategies. Around the time Karzai was announcing his plans, the Chicago Urban League (CUL), in partnership with the Alternative Schools Network, released a report on the declining rates of teen employment in Illinois and across the United States since 2000.

The picture it paints is extremely bleak,” says David Thigpen, policy expert for the Chicago Urban League. “We’ve seen an upsurge of youth violence in the last year, and we think it’s no accident that youth unemployment numbers are so high. Also, the youth dropout rate in Chicago is extremely high—nearly 50 percent. So this is creating a large mass of teens who have nothing to do and who have no options.” 

Sound familiar?

While the Chicago Urban League is not tackling violence directly, high unemployment figures have demonstrated the plight of Illinois’ disconnected youth, a segment of the population (between the ages of 16-24) that is both out of work and out of school. Within this group, blacks and Hispanics have been especially impacted by nationwide joblessness. In Illinois, for example, only 14 percent of black male teens were employed last year.


Such trends, says Thigpen, extract a great cost from society and foreshadow a long-term threat to America’s economic security.  Reinvigorating the country’s economic future requires closing the achievement gap; it means bringing young men of color back into the fold and into the workforce.

That’s why the Chicago Urban League and its partners have called for $1.5 billion in federal money to be allocated to the state for workforce development programs—training disengaged young people, connecting them with potential employers and promoting greater equity in the public education system. Economic stability, in this case, requires an American brand of reintegration.


As the league tries to provide work for disconnected youth, Dr. John Rich treats them. Rich, a primary-care physician trained in public health, runs the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice in Philadelphia, which uses “the tools of public health to address violence.”

After working for several years with victims of trauma and violence—mostly young black men—Rich concedes that the line between patient and perpetrator is often blurred. There’s a presumption among emergency-room doctors that black men suffering trauma are to blame for the physical and emotional wounds they incur. But Rich and his colleagues are attempting to “change the conversation around violence” and expand their treatment efforts beyond the hospital.


One of the programs at the center, Healing Hurt People, identifies victims of violence in the emergency room and prepares them for the potential effects that trauma has on the body and mind. Additionally, patients are paired with outreach workers who provide them with the essential social services to transition out of the hospital—everything from getting state I.D. cards to finding employment. Patients are also able to attend outpatient treatment in the S.E.L.F. program (Safety, Emotions, Loss and Future), a 10-week series of group treatment sessions intended to help patients cope with trauma.

In an interview with The Root, Rich explained that many of the young men he encounters view “violence as a way to establish an identity for themselves.”


Reintegrating our young fighters, therefore, requires fewer misguided attempts to incarcerate and punish and more strategic efforts to reintegrate them into their communities. If it all works, we could end up with peace on two fronts.

Saaret E. Yoseph is assistant editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"