- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

U.S. Central Command recently announced it will be supporting an indigenous movement opposing al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan - similar to the Awakening movement that was central to turning Iraq around. Already, critics are saying it won’t work.

Iraq’s Anbar Awakening was a collection of Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi nationalists, former insurgents and others united by the goal of driving al Qaeda from their country. Coalition forces gave this movement protection and support at key points, and it was later broadened through the “Sons of Iraq,” a U.S. initiative authorizing formation of paramilitary organizations.

There are good reasons to think the case for pessimism in Afghanistan is wrong. Four arguments are commonly made suggesting an Afghan “Awakening” could not succeed: that it would detract from improvements in Afghan security forces, that Afghanistan is too different from Iraq, that the Pashtun tribes would not support an Awakening, and that these efforts could destabilize Afghanistan.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, for example, opposes an Afghan Awakening because he prefers a “more formal training process that leads to a more reliable, more professional soldier and Afghan national security force.” One problem with this view is that Afghan forces have been slow to develop. Newsweek recently reported that U.S. commanders think Afghan units may not be able to operate independently for another five years.

Moreover, there is no forced choice between an Awakening and the development of Afghan forces. Both can be done at once.

One critic arguing that Afghanistan is too different from Iraq for the Awakening to be a relevant model is Spencer Ackerman. He writes at the Washington Independent that while al Qaeda brutally overplayed its hand in Iraq, “This isn’t anything new for Afghanistan, where al Qaeda, the Taliban and other affiliated groups have existed and operated in these fashions for, in some cases, 30 years.”

Is it true the Afghans have grown accustomed to, and thus content with, the brutality of al Qaeda and the Taliban? There have been reports of tribal leaders banding together against them - only to get slaughtered, since al Qaeda and the Taliban enjoy military superiority. The Taliban has also taken to posting “night letters,” threatening notes put in public places at night warning the population not to defy them. If Afghans were truly content with their dominance, would these measures be necessary?

American intelligence sources also report that segments of the Taliban have shifted dramatically in their theology from Deobandism toward the more foreign Salafi-jihadi outlook since Sept. 11, 2001, under the influence of such ideologues as Sheik Isa al-Masri. This may further rupture the Taliban’s relationship with the Afghan people.

The argument that Pashtun tribes will not take part in an Afghan Awakening posits that their shared ethnic identity with the Taliban will prevent meaningful participation. This argument is likely overstated, since much of Afghan identity is determined not by ethnicity but by a complex array of local tribal alliances. Indeed, the United States was able to find support among some Pashtun tribes during the 2001 invasion.

Even if this argument was correct, and Pashtun participation in an Awakening was minimal, this does not mean the effort would be doomed. For example, a successful Awakening in Nuristan - which has a small Pashtun population - could have an impact on neighboring Kunar Province. Kunar, which borders Pakistan’s tribal areas, is a key point of ingress into Afghanistan by Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

Finally, critics claim an Afghan Awakening would be destabilizing, empowering warlords or undermining disarmament efforts. Though this argument is not without some merit, Afghanistan is already destabilized.

NATO and U.S. casualties hit an all-time high in 2008, and a December report by the International Council on Security and Development found that “the Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year ago.”

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s central government is largely a rump state. As an American military intelligence officer recently said, “Arguing that introducing a new strategy is bad because it might be destabilizing is a bit like squabbling over dinner seats while the house burns down all around you.”

There are also ways to minimize long-term destabilizing effects of these policies. Arming tribes does not mean weapons will be distributed chaotically. As the Sons of Iraq program progressed, the United States did a decent job of keeping track of armaments that were distributed - that made it easier to later incorporate participants into the Iraqi security forces, or send them to vocational schools as an alternative to militia activity.

There is no guarantee that an Awakening will work in Afghanistan. Nor would it be implemented uniformly, as there are great variations among the country’s regions. Yet the strategy has promise: Writing it off this early seems unwise, given the gravity of the situation the United States faces.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the director of the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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