Posted by: Christian | November 3, 2008

The Death of the Anbar Militia Strategy in Afghanistan

It’s official. Any chance of an application of the Iraqi Awakening/ Sons of Iraq/Concerned Citizens/Anbar militia strategy making it to Afghanistan in the form of US-supported Pashtun militias (Lashkars, Arbakais, Arbakis, Arbakees) is dead. I was worried when the idea was making its rounds through various newspapers, media outlets and blogs. The Brits started it around mid-December 2007 with PM Brown openly advocating the idea. I wrote at CT Lab about why it was a bad idea in a quick and incomplete entry that didn’t reflect fully what a bad idea the proposed tribal strategy was. However, other analaysis is available. Josh Foust was so annoyed that he wrote about it once, twice, three times. But what the heck do Josh Foust and I know? [To be fair,  Marton beat us to it.]

I was heartened when NPR quoted Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, who commands all U.S. and allied troops in eastern Afghanistan:

Among the questions being asked: Can Afghan forces be expanded rapidly by organizing — even arming — the country’s tribes, much like the tribes in Iraq were brought into the fight against al-Qaida two years ago? That effort started in Iraq’s Anbar province, which at one time was among the most violent. Now it’s one of the most peaceful provinces.

“I don’t think there’s any broad consensus on arming the tribes,” says Schloesser. “There’s a fear that going back to any kind of warlordism or armed militias is a step backward. But I think there is an attempt to empower the tribal elders and tribes to try to help in security.”

Well, we and other uppity skeptics got our comeuppance when the Army Times, on October 21st quoted General Petraeus:

Petraeus said it is “conceivable” that the Taliban and the Haqqani and Hekmatyar groups might include elements open to such reconciliation, and that the U.S. and its allies might support — in very close coordination with the Afghan government — the establishment of local anti-extremist militias similar to the “Sons of Iraq” Sunni groups who helped turn the tide in Anbar province against al-Qaida in Iraq.

I couldn’t believe it when I read this. I though that officers on the ground and any analyst who cares to actually read a few books by anyone French or just a couple of reports/essays by anyone German about Afghanistan would realize that this is a wretched idea (OK, there are of course more great authors other than just Roy, Dorronsoro, Glatzer and Schetter). My opinion of Petraeus at the time dropped more than a few notches.

But then, surprise! It seems that the Army Times, which is a private independent paper, got it a little wrong. A mishap that has nothing at all to do with the Army Times journalist’s Canadian background. Perhaps bad communication on the Army side?

On Halloween, in the Finacial Times, Petreaus’s skepticism shone through:

Given his success in Iraq , Gen Petraeus has been asked whether some of the counter-insurgency efforts that worked in Iraq could be imported to Afghanistan . But he has always stressed the “unique” nature of each situation, saying recently that, “some of the concepts used in Iraq are transplantable. Others perhaps are not”.

OK, vague…but at least he is not swallowing the concept whole. And just a day before General McKiernan, in the NY Times, also expressed caution:

American commanders have also spoken of the importance of better engaging Afghan tribes as a weapon against Taliban encroachment. Some have suggested using the model of the “tribal awakening” that occurred in Iraq, when the American military teamed with some former Sunni insurgents to try to drive out Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

But General McKiernan has cited significant differences in the history and culture of Afghanistan, as well as a greater complexity in the Afghan tribal system, as reasons why the Iraqi model does not directly apply in Afghanistan. Of the more than 400 major tribal networks inside Afghanistan, the general said recently, most have been “traumatized by over 30 years of war, so a lot of that traditional tribal structure has broken down.”

Spencer Ackerman picked up the general vagueness of the whole affair and wondered aloud if the answer is to Anbar or not to Anbar?:

Now, it could be that Petraeus isn’t talking about creating what might be called Sons Of Afghanistan, and is instead concerned with the general strategic option of separating irreconcilable enemies of the Afghan government from those who can be bought off or otherwise induced to abandon insurgency.

Ackerman, who is on the lists of journalists I don’t make fun of, possesses the capability of asking the big shots big questions. So he asked McKiernan and he was unenthusiastic. A WaPo journalist asked a follow up question and I’ll excerpt from the General’s response to that:

…..But I think it’s much more complex environment of tribal linkages, and intertribal complexity than there is in Iraq. It’s not as simple as taking the Sunni Awakening and doing the Pashtun Awakening in Afghanistan. It’s much more complex than that.

And how’s this for a high level civilian rebuttal?:

For his part, Barack Obama expressed doubts about how far the Iraqi template would stretch. “I agree with Gen. Petraeus that a topic worth exploring is whether similar types of opportunities exist in Afghanistan,” he replied, also via e-mail. “[But] Iraq and Afghanistan are very different countries. We cannot expect to simply export the Awakening strategy from the tribes of Al-Anbar to the tribes of Helmand …”

So…let’s just declare the concept of pro-American tribal militias rising up to dutifully take on the Taliban as DOA. It was a bad idea to begin with and now the highest levels of the military and the likely occupant of the White House have declared it so.


  1. […] Jari Even with half my amygdala preoccupied with Tuesday’s election, I’m unnerved by all this talk about applying the Anbar model to Afghanistan. Lest we forget, here are a few facts about the […]

  2. Kabul Media is making their library of photographs available online at

  3. Hey now, I was talking about this stuff at the same time as Péter :-)

    But you’re right — it is a GREAT thing that the Army looks set to abandon this terrible idea.

  4. What’s the alternative? Security centralized out of Kabul? The Pakistani state is unable to enforce sovereignty over its tribal areas – how are we to expect an Afghan state (and Afghan Army/Police) to do what Pakistan has never been able to do?

    I’m no fan of warlordism, but it seems to me the basic political unit in Afghanistan is the tribe and therefore the attempt to remake Afghan society into some kind of parliamentary democracy is DOA as well, along with the fantasy that a centralized Army and Police force can control Afghanistan.

    I might suggest that perhaps the best solution for Afghanistan is in the middle, where tribal structures have significant, but not complete, independence from Kabul to include – yes – their own security. In that case, an “anbar lite” model might work in many, but obviously not all, areas. It’s the essence of “helping people help themselves.”

  5. We’ve done away with the <a href=” Auxiliary Police, and apparently given up on tribal militias/lashkars/arbakai. OK.

    Is an Afghan version of Kit Carson Scouts or Ruff Puffs out of the question?

    Can there be any indig friendlies other than ANP and ANA?

    Is there any role at all for local, district, or provincial forces?

  6. Afghanistan is in the middle, where tribal structures have significant, but not complete, independence from Kabul to include – yes – their own security. In that case, an “anbar lite” model might work in many, but obviously not all, areas. It’s the essence of “helping people help themselves.”:DDD

  7. Anbar succeeded because US forces were backing it consistently. In Afghanistan there are only limited niches where it would succeed. If you look South to Pakistan you can see how it would go, where sometimes lashkars gain support and sometimes they don’t. Political factions coupled with old emnities would come into play in Afghanistan as well, creating only patchy effectiveness. The danger of recreating the warlords outweighs the benefit, and if applied in Afghanistan, it should be limited to the small areas where it can succeed.

  8. a href=””>U.S. Military to Launch Pilot Program to Recruit New Local Afghan Militias

  9. Thanks for the link, Canoneer. I guess once the realization dawned that ‘tribes’ in AF don’t exist as organizations, ready to be coopted, the powers that be decided to go to the village level. Still a lot to be explained.

  10. […] analysis of this plan hasn’t convinced you it might all end in tears, go have a look-see at Ghosts of Alex and Registan. And proof that I wasn’t dreaming it this morning from the […]

  11. […] Okay, so how about arming one tribe against the others? Fuhgeddaboutit: “Afghanistan is awash with weapons and armed groups. Creating unaccountable local militias — based on false analogies with Iraq — will only worsen ethnic tensions and violence.” […]

  12. This looks very good and well made. nice text, Thank you very much.

  13. I have added it to my favourites, greetings
    thank you

  14. […] South,” was again dug up in late 2007. But one year ago many people pieced together the obvious fact that it was still dead. The consolation at the time for advocates seems to have been the Pashtun […]

  15. tthankss


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