Analysts are warning that it might prove counterproductive to extend to Afghanistan the U.S. strategy of forming and paying tribal militias to improve security - though the strategy has been credited with great successes in Iraq.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan denied such a move was being considered by senior officials, but the possibility is being discussed by officers on the ground.
“People are talking about it,” said Vikram Singh, an expert with the Center for a New American Security who returned recently from Afghanistan and told United Press International the idea of extending the strategy there had come up in briefings from the U.S. military.
He said detailed discussions about possibly supplying weapons and money were taking place “at an operational and tactical level - identifying people who [coalition military forces] could work with.”
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan denied that extending the strategy of arming and paying tribal militias was on the table.
“We are not considering that,” Capt. Christian Patterson said.
But it is being advocated, at least by some now outside the government.
Recently retired U.S. Army counterinsurgency expert Col. John Nagl welcomed the idea, saying that “buying off your enemies is a time-honored tactic in counterinsurgency with a proven track record of success.”
“Over time, you try to incorporate those people into the government security organizations,” Col. Nagl added. “I absolutely think that there are tribal organizations in Afghanistan who could be incorporated. It would be a way to rapidly increase the size of [the Afghan National Police and National Army] with cohesive units.”
However, as UPI reported last month, the strategy of forming and paying Sunni tribal militias - known variously as Awakening Councils or the Sons of Iraq - to maintain security has run into trouble in Iraq, where efforts to integrate them into the nation’s security forces have been stymied by the sectarian concerns of the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
Several Afghanistan experts with whom UPI spoke said they had grave doubts about expanding the practice, warning it would risk the fragile gains of the state-building strategy that the international community has been pursuing.
“At best, it would be a tactical gain, but also an immense strategic loss,” said Ali Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister and now a visiting professor at the National Defense University. He noted that by fragmenting power and undermining the authority of the central government, the strategy in the long run could actually worsen the instability it sought to improve.
He called this “effort to gain peace through manipulating tribal dynamics” a “colonial approach.”
Levels of corruption and instability were already much too high in the volatile border regions of the country, said retired Marine Col. Daniel Curfiss, also a professor at the National Defense University.
“My concern is, it would be throwing kindling on this [fire] to pay people who are already unwilling to relinquish power,” he said.
“There are precedents, and the precedents are not terribly hopeful,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Dobbins, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of a recent study of state-building efforts in the war-ravaged country.
In the period immediately after the ouster of the Taliban government at the end of 2001, Mr. Dobbins said, the United States and its allies attempted to limit their military commitment by restricting peacekeeping troops to Kabul and using “tribal militias and warlords” to maintain security in the rest of the country.
“Over time it was found that that was not an adequate policy,” Mr. Dobbins said.
Mr. Jalali said continuing efforts by coalition nations to work directly with tribal and other local leaders had been “one of the problems when I was interior minister” from 2003 to 2005. “They gave them weapons, money and vehicles.”
In 2006, he said, the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai tried itself to use tribally based militias - with unhappy results.
Most of the 12,000 members of the militias, formally titled the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, “either deserted with their arms and equipment or were more or less forced to join the insurgents,” he said, adding that the force was scheduled to be finally phased out of existence by the end of the year.
He also pointed out that years of war and insurgency in the tribal areas of Afghanistan had physically decimated the tribal leadership and eroded their influence.
“Over the past 30 years, the influence of the traditional leaders has waned,” he said, adding that warlords and extremists replaced them.
Even those who think the idea is worth considering are keen to stress the differences between the two theaters.
The political dynamic is different in Afghanistan, said Mr. Singh, because there, you would not be buying off enemies, but arming your friends.
“The people that we’d start working with are people that already support the government,” he said. “They are aware of what’s happening in Iraq and they are saying, ‘You should do it here.’”
Many local leaders were “all too eager to get in the game,” Mr. Singh said.
He said on his recent trip to Afghanistan he had met a delegation of two dozen tribal elders who had come to town to petition the government about security in their remote border region. They were saying, in effect, “If you can’t take care of the border, give us the weapons and we’ll do it,” he said.
Mr. Jalali said a strategy of working through local militias was putting the cart before the horse.
“The tribes will only stand up [against the extremists] if they see that the government had authority in their areas; that is not the case today.” The priority should be building the capacity of the central government, Mr. Jalali said. “Capacity-building is the central challenge in Afghanistan today.”
Mr. Singh said that was one of his concerns about the proposal, too.
“No one is thinking at the strategic level; if this is the right answer,” he said, adding there was “no analysis by the coalition of how this would play out.”
“There’s a lot of downside,” he concluded.