security program which has been launched against the Taliban in Afghanistan
is labeled a "pilot program" by the US and is inspired by the
relative success story of Iraq after Sunni militias were armed to fight Al-Qaeda.
Americans poured weapons and dollars into this strategy and it finally worked.
Military decision makers now compare the Iraq of two years ago with today's
Afghanistan. War strategists believe arming tribal groups or militias will help
reduce Taliban attacks, just as arming Sunni militias against Al-Qaeda did in
Iraq. But the United States and NATO must understand that Afghanistan is not
Iraq and the similarities between the insurgencies in the two countries should
not be taken as justification for adopting a similar strategy.
The ground realities in Afghanistan are very different to those in Iraq. Divisions here are not merely sectarian; rather, they are ethnic as well as tribal and clannish. Arming one group to turn it against another will only exacerbate the situation. And as much as the Karzai government would like everyone to believe the contrary, the insurgency is not entirely comprised of hit-and-run Pakistanis from across the border. The "Taliban" in the South, the bastion of the insurgency, consists of the disenchanted Pashtoon tribal groups who feel left out. Old tribal divisions continue to play out in Afghanistan today: some Durrani clans call most of the shots, while the Ghilzai clans in the South feel marginalized. These are the clans that were the original Taliban, and the ones that today fuel the insurgency.
The new plan originally aimed to arm "local groups." If by local groups or tribes is meant the Durrani clans, this would fuel further resentment of the current establishment among the Ghilzais. Conversely, the arms given to Ghilzai tribes may end up being used against the government, the international forces and civilians of the different ethnic groups.
However, whether either the Durranis or the Ghilzais are armed, these tribal militias will essentially be autonomous, not under control of any recognized authority. This takes Afghanistan back to the pre-DDR and DIAG days, where hundreds, even thousands, of armed militia groups roamed free outside of government control. This new plan has the potential to reinvigorate warlordism, wasting the hundreds of millions of DDR and DIAG dollars that brought a great measure of stability to the country, particularly in the North and northwest.
After criticism and opposition from all circles, the Afghan government has postponed the idea of tribal militia and has established a new force called "Public Protection Police. " However, village youths from insurgent strongholds are to be recruited for the new force on the recommendation of community elders--tribal leaders-- which makes it closely resemble a militia-type force. Though the government says it would operate under the Interior Ministry, this remains under discussion.
The country's current relative stability may become history when the former Northern warlords see that not only are there no consequences to rearming, but that the government itself is arming their counterparts in the South. The US and NATO must understand that the new security plan will result in the creation of homegrown militias, more loyal to the insurgency than to the government. Before taking this "pilot program" any further, coalition war strategists should thoroughly study the tribal resistance against the Taliban in Pakistan's lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas that has become a stronghold of Taliban insurgents, giving tough times to Pakistani security forces.
The Pakistan Army applied the "pilot program" of tribal militias against the Taliban in FATA's troubled areas in 2003 and again in 2007. The Pakistan Army supported the tribal militias, called "Lashkar," against the Taliban. But the situation is getting worse there. The Taliban has almost defeated the Lashkars in the Bajaur, Swat, Dara Adamkhel, Mehmand and Aurakzai agencies. Hundreds of people belonging to such Lashkars have been killed. A recent example is Pir Samiullah, a prominent tribal leader of a Lashkar formed against the Taliban: in December, he and his 8 supporters were ruthlessly killed. The tribal Lashkar of Buner District of FATA killed six Taliban fighters a couple of months ago. The Taliban warned they would seek revenge and made good on their promise when a suicide bomber killed around 45 people a few weeks ago. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility, saying "the revenge wasn't yet over and every person in Shalbandai (Buner) would be eliminated for killing the Taliban members."
Observing the failed story of tribal militias in Pakistan's FATA, it can be assumed that the idea of a "pilot program" of arming local militias in Southern or Southeastern Afghanistan won't work. It will only further entrench current instability and revive three decades of civil war. The United States should understand that Afghanistan is not Iraq and reconsider the program.
Abbas Daiyar is a Kabul-based journalist writing for Daily Outlook Afghanistan, where he is an editorial board member.
Related material from the Atlantic Community:
- HOT ISSUE: UK Slams Poor European Committment in Afghanistan
- Assem Akram: A New Strategy for Afghanistan
- Tim Foxley: How to Take the Media Battle to the Taliban