The danger of tribal militias in Afghanistan: learning from the British empire.

Author:Marten, Kimberly

The United States and its coalition allies are struggling to find a way out of the military morass of Afghanistan. The radical Islamists of the neo-Taliban have expanded their control over more and more territory in the southeast of the country, making some districts no-go areas for the state and the international community and leaving other districts treacherous after dark. (1) The number and ferocity of deadly attacks against coalition forces, Afghan authorities and civilians has skyrocketed, making July and August 2009 the bloodiest months of the war thus far. (2) Violence plagued the August 2009 presidential election.

U.S. commanders are seeking to apply lessons from the operational success of the Sunni Awakening policy pursued in the Iraq "surge" of 2007. In Iraq, Sunni tribal elders who had earlier supported Al Qaeda in Iraq were paid by U.S. forces to use their militias instead to guard their neighborhoods and villages and support the Iraqi government. As the Awakening movement spread throughout Sunni areas, violence plummeted. (3) These militias are now being integrated into the Iraqi national security forces.

In Afghanistan's Pashtun areas today, where neo-Taliban insurgents have their ethnic base, U.S. commanders hope to put a similar program in place. But that idea is a mistake. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the region that now forms the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, British colonial troops tried something similar. They used their intelligence resources to identify local power brokers, or maliks, and paid them off for their support. Their system of payments became hereditary and was eventually enshrined in independent Pakistan's constitution, because those who received the payments--the so-called "official maliks"--used the money to buy local support and make themselves indispensable for state security. These official maliks formed a new class hierarchy in the FATA that bred local resentment. In more recent times, this resentment helps explain local support for radical Islamism as an alternative to the perceived corruption of the existing system.

Outside funding, whether provided by external forces like the United States or by the state of Afghanistan, will simply cement the control of local militia commanders over local populations, turning them into new warlords. This may provide short-term stability, but the plan is short-sighted. By funding and supporting new local warlords, the United States and its allies will be planting the seeds for a future round of radical Islamist backlash against warlord rule. What appears to be an operational exit strategy now will simply ensure that the strategic problem of Afghanistan endures, forcing U.S. troops back into the country again when it once more becomes an Al Qaeda haven next door to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.


Tribal militias were already tapped by the United States and its allies to provide security for Afghanistan's presidential election on 20 August 2009. Now the goal is to make this program permanent. The Jalrez District in Wardak Province has been a year-long "test case" for the new U.S. military plan, but it has not worked all that well since people are reluctant to be seen as working for the government when the Taliban is watching. (4) Nonetheless, the plan is to provide cooperating militia members with a salary of $120-$150 per month, which is generous by Afghan standards. Meanwhile, the government of Afghanistan is creating a new state agency, the Independent Directorate for the Protection of Highways and Public Property, to take over the program from the United States in the future. (5)

General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that he is ramping up intelligence collection to understand tribal dynamics and find local power brokers for coalition forces to engage in these programs. (6) There is no publicly available evidence about how the United States chooses power brokers for this program, but those choices likely reflect the advice of David Kilcullen, who was the senior counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and is widely respected as a leading expert on counterinsurgency doctrine. Kilcullen points out that the Taliban is not a unified force, but instead "a fragmented series of shifting tactical alliances of convenience." (7) He recognizes that many of those who support the Taliban turn to radical Islamism not out of ideological fervor, but instead because its promise of predictable rules and quick justice provides a form of stability and certainty that the corrupt Afghan government cannot give its population. Since the national government and many of its appointed provincial governors lack popular legitimacy and respect, Kilcullen argues that coalition forces should instead focus on finding local tribal leaders as partners to establish security and development in the country. He recommends choosing allies based not on their ideology, but on their ability and apparent authority to enforce consistent rules in the community. (8) If coalition forces can find such natural "community leaders" to support, he believes the appeal of the Taliban will disintegrate. Kilcullen writes, "It is important to remember ... that population groups in a traditional society exercise choices collectively, not individually.... choices tend to reflect group consensus ... [and] this tendency is even more pronounced in tribal societies under the stress of insurgency." (9)

Some coalition forces are using what some call "white situational awareness" (White SA) to figure out who the powerful local leaders are. (10) For example, the Canadian government has created small civil-military White SA teams in Kandahar Province to "map out the movers and shakers of the province and how they relate to each other," with the goal of "unlocking some of the mysteries of the tribal structure." (11) Since 2007, U.S. forces have been working with similar "human terrain" teams of anthropologists and other specialists in Afghanistan, who enter information about local tribal culture and authority structures into a collaborative database. (12) A so-called "WIKINT" system has begun to emerge (the latest acronym to be added to such terms as HUMINT, or human intelligence, and SIGINT, or signals intelligence), in which databases organized as Internet wikis allow terrain team members to update and modify shared knowledge about local situations. (13)

In theory, a sophisticated intelligence system, using both the latest technology and the expertise of anthropologists and other social scientists to find local power brokers, might sound like the best way of finding allies inside Afghanistan. The problem with this system, though, is that it rewards strength, without any real verification of the extent or depth of the popular legitimacy of those it rewards. It does nothing to protect the local population from arbitrary rule that may be based on deviousness or threats whose existence is hidden from outsiders. There is no transparency concerning how local leaders are chosen to participate in the program and no checks on whether the "community leaders" identified actually engender deep feelings of legitimacy, or instead get their way through cunning, bribery and blackmail that separates in-groups from resentful out-groups. There is a strong incentive for ambitious local elites to embroil outside actors in machinations that tip power balances toward one faction and against another. The losing faction then has a strong incentive to call on an alternative outsider--in this case, radical Islamist groups like the neo-Taliban--for help.

Many Afghans worry that the new U.S. program will simply create new warlords (14) Analyst Andrew Bacevich of Boston University believes there is nothing wrong with this and that having warlord allies is a good way to stabilize the country. (15) A similar view explains U.S. policy toward Afghanistan over past decades. Warlords already exercise a great deal of political power, in large part because of recent U.S. support. The United States and its allies gave financial and military support to cooperative warlords in the Northern Alliance when the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces began in Afghanistan in October 2001. (16) Along with the United Nations and other members of the international community, the United States then gave tacit approval for warlords to enter the political realm as the initial reconstruction of Afghanistan began. Warlords had influence on the loya jirgas (grand councils) that established Afghanistan's provisional government and constitution. (17) Now former Northern Alliance commanders such as Rashid Dostum, Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf and Mohammed Qasim Fahim have inveigled themselves into the national government and political campaigns of President Hamid Karzai, despite their well-documented records of human rights violations and war crimes (18) Outside support has unintentionally cemented warlord power in the new government and the result is a state that is weak, riddled with corruption and beholden to kingpins in the narcotics trade. (19)

Now the new administration of President Barack Obama, in a break with previous U.S. policy, is criticizing Karzai for cooperating with these same warlords. (20) U.S. Special Envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke went so far as to enter negotiations with a Karzai rival as a result, arguing that technocrat Ashraf Ghani should be integrated into the Karzai campaign and government to block warlord control. (21) Yet at the same time, U.S. military forces are still paying local militia commanders to support coalition operations. It is sadly ironic that the United States fails to recognize the pattern it is repeating, funding new militia commanders even as it tries to undo the damage it created by funding other militia commanders in the past.



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