A Tribal Strategy for Afghanistan

Greg Bruno, Staff Writer
Council on Foreign Relations
Tuesday, November 11, 2008 9:24 AM


In the hunt for a new strategy in Afghanistan, U.S. military commanders are studying the feasibility of recruiting Afghan tribesmen (LAT) to target Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. Taking a page from the so-called "Sunni Awakening" in Iraq, which turned Sunni tribesmen against militants first in Anbar Province and then beyond, the strategic about-face in Afghanistan would seek to extend power from Kabul to the country's myriad tribal militias. Gen. David Petraeus, the former top commander in Iraq who now heads U.S. Central Command, has talked openly of this ground-up approach, telling the New York Times that "in certain areas local reconciliation initiatives hold some potential." But other military leaders and regional analysts warn that while reliance on Afghan tribes could prove effective in some regions, the strategy is also fraught with pitfalls that have the potential to further destabilize the country. "There's always concerns that it has to be done correctly," Gen. David D. McKiernan, the current commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in October 2008, "or you get back into the problems of armed militias, of support to warlords, of corrupt practices."

A New Strategy?

Gen. Petraeus has ordered a formal review (WashPost) of U.S. strategy for Afghanistan that will focus on at least two themes: possible government reconciliation with the Taliban; and cooperation with neighboring countries, including Pakistan and Iran. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Budapest in October 2008, said he favored some form of reconciliation in Afghanistan, though he acknowledged not knowing "how it would evolve." A week later, during a speech at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, Gates was unequivocal in his support of bringing tribal elements into the fold. "At the end of the day the only solution in Afghanistan is to work with the tribes and provincial leaders in terms of trying to create a backlash ... against the Taliban," the defense secretary said.

If U.S. commanders do turn to Afghanistan's tribes-a similar strategy is already being employed by Pakistan in that country's tribal regions-it would amount to a significant reversal for Washington and for the war's planners. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested in December 2007 that international forces should "increase our support for community defense initiatives" such as the Afghan arbakai-networks of tribal militias that serve as voluntary village defense forces in the country's southeast. But the idea was initially given little credence by Brown's American counterparts. In January 2008, for instance, U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, McKiernan's predecessor as commander of NATO forces, told the Financial Times that the British proposal was potentially disastrous. "What we should not do is take actions that will reintroduce militias of the former power brokers," McNeill said. As recently as September 2008 U.S. military commanders maintained that relying on tribes was a bad idea, according to a report (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service. Now, Seth G. Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, says bringing Afghan tribes into the mix may be the only way to restore stability, though he and other experts stress a tribal strategy would be only part of a potential solution.

Afghanistan's recent history has been dominated by war and central control. But this pattern is relatively recent. For instance, during the reigns of Mohammed Zahir Shah (1933-1973), and the Taliban (1996-2001), central authorities ceded significant power to tribal leaders. "Part of the recipe for stability [during Zahir Shah's tenure] was a competent, legitimate central government that had the ability to establish order in urban areas of the country ... and a tacit agreement with local tribes, subtribes, and clans in rural areas of the country," Jones says. "Finding some medium between the two is what has kept Afghanistan stable in its stable periods."

Kabul Takes the Lead

The rise in violence that began in 2006 has led U.S. commanders to explore a ground-up approach, but details on how a tribal reconciliation program might work are still being hammered out. About the only certainty, experts say, is that any reconciliation program must be managed and implemented by the Afghan government. "This needs to be an Afghan-led effort on how to engage the tribes and what the incentives are and how to use the traditional tribal authorities to help with community security and community assistance," Gen. McKiernan told reporters in October 2008. Kabul is already showing leadership on alternate strategies; it pledged alongside Pakistani officials to begin talks with Taliban groups, another strategy Washington was slow to endorse.

Yet some observers have been critical of the Afghan-led approach in the past. In June 2006 President Hamid Karzai authorized arming arbakai in southern and eastern Afghanistan to secure the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The region is predominantly Pashtun-the major ethnolinguistic group that dominates the country's south and east. Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said at the time that the initiative was aimed at recruiting local militiamen into the national police force (RFE/RL). The minister said the program would not undermine international disarmament efforts, such as the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) and Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) programs. But Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, said at the time that Karzai's move was a "complete reversal" of efforts to strengthen the central government, and predicted that arming Pashtun militias in the south would renew tribal rivalries that had been dormant for years; some analysts believe that has happened.

Similar concerns were raised in October 2008, as talk of a U.S.-backed effort intensified. General Nur-al Haq Olumi, a member of parliament from Kandahar Province, told the Kabul-based daily Payman, according to a translation by the BBC, that distributing guns in the south while simultaneously supporting national efforts to disband and disarm militias was contradictory and potentially destructive. The Afghan paper Hasht-e Sobh, also translated by the BBC, underscored the point in an editorial: "The fact that these forces may become new warlords is not mere speculation. It is an irrefutable truth." Others fear that by arming Pashtun tribes, rivalries could be reignited; they point to unresolved conflict between the Hazara minority and nomads in central Afghanistan as a possible source of friction. Aware of the risks, Karzai has relocated warlords to stem regional violence. One example: He appointed as minister of energy the veteran mujahedeen commander Ismail Khan, who once controlled a sizeable portion of the country from his northwestern base of operations in Herat Province.

Leveraging Ancient Support

Framing these regional power struggles-and any new ground-up strategy-are a complex and baffling array of tribal actors. Pashtuns are represented by dozens of major tribal groups (though two "super tribes," the Durrani and Ghilzai, have historically been among the most influential) with hundreds of subtribes. The most sought-after partnership discussed in any potential U.S.-NATO-Afghan tribal cooperation would involve the arbakai. Akin to local police and courted by the Karzai government, the arbakai defend communities and enforce the decisions of tribal councils, or jirgas. A September 2004 report (PDF) by the International Legal Foundation describes their traditional duties: "In ancient Aryan tribes, the Arbakai led groups of warriors in wartime and maintained law and order in peacetime. Today, they take orders from a commander. They are given considerable immunity in their communities and cannot be harmed or disobeyed. Those who flout these rules are subject to the punishments set by the Arbakai organization." More recently, these self-regulating militias have been especially adept (Economist) at keeping the Taliban at bay in areas where tribal structures are strongest. Pashtun tribes adhere to an ancient code of honor and revenge known as Pashtunwali; the Taliban have struggled to promote their vision of sharia law in Pashtunwali regions, the Economist notes. But experts say it would be premature to assume Pashtun militias would be open to cooperating with international forces: Pashtun disdain for outsiders is not discriminatory.

Non-Pashtun tribes and warlords dominating northeastern and western regions of the country are even more of a wild card, analysts say. Jake Sherman, a former UN official in Afghanistan, writes in a 2005 assessment of Afghan warlords that Badakhshan and Takhar Provinces in the country's northeast have historically been hotbeds for unofficial militias (PDF). The center of Soviet resistance in the 1980s, these mountainous provinces have been home to tens of thousands of militants, many led by independent commanders with little regard for local and central governmental structures. Jones, the RAND analyst, says one issue Western commanders will have to reconcile is that a bottom-up approach, by design, will empower local actors "at the expense of the central government." That shouldn't be a deal breaker, however. "That's just the way Afghanistan has historically worked, including in its periods of peace," Jones says.

Complex Tribal System

NATO commander Gen. McKiernan says turning to tribes will not be fast or easy; many have been engaged in isolated struggles for decades, and arming the wrong ones could return Afghanistan's warlords to power. "What I find in Afghanistan ... is a degree of complexity in the tribal system which is much greater than what I found in Iraq years ago," he said. "I would not want ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] military commanders to be trying to decide which tribe should they support without letting the Afghan government do that. It's simple as that."

Part of the reluctance for a heavy U.S. hand is perception: the United States and its allies do not want to be seen as meddling in the affairs of tribes and clans that have historically opposed outsiders. But beyond perception is sheer complexity; Western commanders may need Afghan expertise. Maps of Afghan tribal divisions in the south (PDF) and east (PDF) illustrate the intermingling factions within Afghan society. Jones says coercing tribes to side with coalition forces will require manipulating regional allegiances and tribal motivations, a strategy the Taliban employed with acumen during their rise to power in the late 1990s.

And still, Afghan experts dispute whether reliance on such networks can succeed. Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst and a fellow at the New America Foundation, says he sees potential positives with employing a strategy similar to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq. "Ordinary Afghans tend to trust their tribal shuras [councils] to solve their problems, and these 'Sons of Afghanistan' could fill the security void (PDF) until the Afghan army and police grew in size and ability so as to be able to secure the country-a process likely to take many years," Bergen writes. But Bergen shares the concern that a reckless approach could fuel a return to warlordism. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey sees another reason for caution. He says as tempting as it may be to transfer successful strategies from one war to another, Afghanistan is not Iraq. "It falls into the question of hierarchical versus egalitarian social structure," Markey says, comparing Iraq with Afghanistan. "What does bribing somebody get you? If you bribe a person in an egalitarian structure ... even if he seems to be a tribal elder, you may get almost nothing" in return.

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