Posted by: Christian | November 23, 2009

Gravediggers Disinter Tribal Militia Corpse

It’s dead. But some people refused to accept it. The idea, discarded after the Rumsfeldian use of militias “went 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 Tribal Militia “Hazaras with guns” in one district in Wardak. Weak soup, for sure.

Every time I hear the idea brought up I would just shrug, sure that it would go nowhere. But in the last couple of days two prominent publications have been talking about…yeah, tribal militias. First up, from WaPo:

While military officers wait for President Obama to conclude his agonizingly slow review of Afghanistan policy, they’ve been reading a paper by an Army Special Forces operative arguing that the only hope for success in that country is to work with tribal leaders.

This tribal approach has widespread support, in principle. The problem is that, in practice, the United States has often moved in the opposite direction in recent years. Rather than supporting tribal leaders, American policies have sometimes had the effect of undermining their ability to stand up to the Taliban.

The paper by Maj. Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time,” has been spinning around the Internet for a month. It contends that in an Afghanistan that has never had a strong central government, “nothing else will work” than a decentralized, bottom-up approach. “We must support the tribal system because it is the single, unchanging political, social and cultural reality in Afghan society,” he insists.

Funny thing, anthropologists and area studies scholars are in universal disagreement with that last sentence. The idea of some primordialist tribal society – with political, social and cultural significance – that has gone unchanged will get you laughed out of any grad level seminar on ethnicity, nationalism, identity, etc… And I’m am not taking about some crack head post-modernists, just in case you think his is where I’m heading.

The article in WaPo continues:

But will this tribal strategy work? The United States thought so in 2003 and 2004, when Gant and many others were sent out with small teams to chase al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. Back then, I’m told, the Special Forces teams had more than 5,000 tribal fighters under arms.

But U.S. officials began to worry that by arming the tribes, they were encouraging Afghanistan’s old curse of warlordism. So after Hamid Karzai’s election as president in 2004, they focused instead on developing Afghanistan’s national army and police. They persuaded the Tajik tribal militia known as the Northern Alliance, a key ally against al-Qaeda, to lay down its weapons.

“Tajik tribal militia”? Seriously? I’m at a loss for words. Actually, I’m not. It’s just appallingly clear that many people have no idea how to use “tribe” and “tribal” in a correct or even consistent manner. But that’s beside the point.

A couple of days ago there was a rather sensationalist article in the NYT. Wherein it was written:

American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban.

The emergence of the militias, which took some leaders in Kabul by surprise, has so encouraged the American and Afghan officials that they are planning to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland in the southern and eastern parts of the country.

The American and Afghan officials say they are hoping the plan, called the Community Defense Initiative, will bring together thousands of gunmen to protect their neighborhoods from Taliban insurgents. Already there are hundreds of Afghans who are acting on their own against the Taliban, officials say.

Well, hooray for the NYT running US military PAO gibberish. They also relay Afghan government propaganda:

“What we are talking about is a local, spontaneous and indigenous response to the Taliban,” said Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister. “The Afghans are saying, ‘We are willing and determined and capable to defend our country; just give us the resources.’ ”

“Victory is at hand! Just give us some money and some goodies.” Yeah right.

It continues:

In the Pashtun-dominated areas of the south and east, the anti-Taliban militias are being led by elders from local tribes. The Pashtun militias represent a reassertion of the country’s age-old tribal system, which binds villages and regions under the leadership of groups of elders.

The tribal networks have been alternately decimated and co-opted by Taliban insurgents. Local tribal leaders, while still powerful, cannot count on the allegiance of all of their tribes’ members.

OK, “decimated” and “co-opted”…..but “still powerful.” That makes perfect sense in the not-at-all sense. And funny thing that the NYT drinks the same primordialist kool-aid that WaPo does. Seriously, go out and try to find the “tribal leadership.” You will find that there is no clear, stable leadership. Things are in flux, and always have been. Especially since 1979. You will end up with a bunch of squabbling locals trying to call in air strikes on their rivals. Anyways, the article was savaged over at Free Range International [where you will also find that there is some serious disagreement over which local leader to go with].

The NYT goes on:

…Kunduz. In that city, several armed groups, led by ethnic Uzbek commanders as well as Pashtuns, are confronting the Taliban.

“In Kunduz, after they defeated the Taliban in their villages, they became the power and they took money and taxes from the people,” Mr. Atmar, the interior minister, said. “This is not legal, and this is warlordism.”

Colonel Kolenda said, “In the long run, that is destabilizing.”

Really? They were interested in more than just valiantly defending their communities? I’m so shocked.

Also, in the Guardian:

US special forces are supporting anti-Taliban militias in at least 14 areas of Afghanistan as part of a secretive programme that experts warn could fuel long-term instability in the country. The Community Defence Initiative (CDI) is enthusiastically backed by Stanley McChrystal, the US general commanding Nato forces in Afghanistan, but details about the programme have been held back from non-US alliance members who are likely to strongly protest. […]

The US has shared few details of its plans with its allies. The programme is controlled by a newly created special forces group that reports directly to McChrystal as head of US forces in the country, but which sits outside the authority of the International Security Assistance Force, the Nato mission in Afghanistan.

As per the details, who knows. It’s the Guardian. But anyways, the CDI exists. And a “special forces group that reports directly to McChrystal”? Sounds familiar.

Back to the paper written by Major Gant, I won’t spend much time on it as I’m satisfied with Judah Grunstein’s criticisms over at the Small Wars Journal. I agree with what he says. All I want to add is that I’m astonished that SF participated in putting the nail in the coffin of some state-supported localized human cleansing:

The highland people had taken and were using some land that belonged to the lowland people. The Malik told me the land had been given to his tribe by the “King Of Afghanistan” many, many years ago and that he would show me the papers. I told him he didn’t need to show me any papers. His word was enough.

I made the decision to support him. “Malik, I am with you. My men and I will go with you and speak with the highlanders again. If they do not turn the land back over to you, we will fight with you against them.” With that, a relationship was born. […]

Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that the dispute with the highlanders was resolved.

Well, congratulations! You have just participated in ethnic/sectarian/tribal cleansing! But hey, if Zahir Shah’s uncles saw fit in the 1950s to give your friends other people’s land, then fair game: “pack up your belongings and run to the hills, run for your lives! We have a piece of paper that says so (plus the ability of our American SF friends to rain down punishment from above). And yes, you may take your women with you. We’re in a charitable mood today.”

It’s also nice to know that SF were given the freedom to decide on their own whether or not to engage in ethnic cleansing without having to consult those REMF pansies at Bagram or CENTCOM [that’s sarcasm]. If I was in that group of “displaced” Kohistanis, whoever the hell they were (Safis? Pashai speakers?), I would join the Taliban or Hizb post-haste. I bet their young men are killing Americans right now. Brilliant, just brilliant. Your strategy for pushing your buddy’s local rivals into the insurgency was flawless!

But please don’t let this anecdote draw away attention from how bad Gant’s paper is when considered in its entirety. The blind embedded, hyper-localized “adopted son” mentality he shows should be a warning to all. Anthropologists do their best to not “join the tribe.” So should soldiers. No bonus points for serving and protecting your country, sorry.

So why do these ideas go nowhere? Why has a broader tribal strategy been consistently rejected? Because the military leadership has made inquiries on the subject. The result? One of the more recent answers:

‘My Cousin’s Enemy is My Friend: A Study of Pashtun “Tribes” in Afghanistan’, Afghanistan Research Reachback Center White Paper. TRADOC G2 Human Terrain System. United States Army. Fort Leavenworth, KS. September 2009. Download PDF.

Anyways, I didn’t leak this. Captain’s Journal dug it up from scribd a couple of weeks ago. And it says “Unclassified.” So I’m OK.

For every amateurish pontification on the power of the “tribes” and their potential for routing the Taliban, there is a pro-level smack down. Doubt the source above? Perhaps you’ve got some great ideas based on the folks in the hills out east? Check this out:

Susanne Schmeidl and Masood Karokhail. 2009. ‘The Role of Non-State Actors in ‘Community-based Policing’: An Exploration of the Arbakai (Tribal Police) in South-Eastern Afghanistan’, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 30, No. 2.

From the abstract:

…the community-based policing structure in south-eastern Afghanistan (arbakai) is explored in this article. We conclude that it is important to understand the context-specificity of ANSA before promoting overarching policies such as advocating a transferability of the arbakai outside their unique cultural and regional context. We also caution against the use ANSA beyond their capacities, such as for counter-insurgency purposes…

Email me if you want a copy for collaborative research purposes as per copyright warning *giggle*.

Can’t stop mumbling ”Al Anbar… Awakening….. Sons of whatever…”? Read this:

Carter Malkasian and Jerry Meyerle. 2009.  ‘How is Afghanistan Different from Al Anbar?’, CNA Report. February 2009. PDF.

But again, you should really read the report from Ft. Leavenworth (Download PDF).

It’s desperation time. Will a policy that was rejected last year rise from the dead? Or will someone buy the snake oil and start trotting out the tribal militia strategy at a national level under a disguised non-tribal name in all of its Weekend at Bernie’s glory? Maybe: the tribal militia strategy is dead, long live the tribal militia strategy. And all hail its court vizier, the Community Defense Initiative!


  1. So what is the alternative? Karzai’s overly-centralized government? GTFO?

    There’s also the debate underlying all this about strategic goals. More people are questioning the assumption that attempts at nation-building are in our interest to begin with. More people want to refocus on AQ and their affiliates, particularly after the recent “election” and see militias as a tool for that purpose.

    So what, in your opinion, is the alternative and what is a reasonable and attainable strategy?

    What’s your opinion

  2. Current Police Force’s Problems
    The current police force has too many bad people that are in the drug mafia, sodomize boys and rob Afghans. That is why you have normal Afghans supporting the Taliban so they can have the police stop these awful acts.

    Afghan National Army?
    Where is the Afghan National Army? They say they have over 100,00 soldiers. Why can’t they be sent these troubled areas? Where are their officers?

    New Talent for the Army and Police
    The alternative solution is to focus on a strong Afghan National Army and Airforce and begin recruiting at the high school level for the police force– police and army academic high schools. You have to start with a new generation.

  3. […] Gravediggers Disinter Tribal Militia Corpse,  November 23, 2009 […]

  4. Thanks for the Human Terrain System reference. Interesting to note they are still recruiting anthropologists to work in Afghanistan. See my blog
    Nick Fielding

  5. […] au défaut inhérent de cette approche qui reflète avant tout les présupposés de ses auteurs: l’engagement trop subjectif au côté d’un groupe là où il serait plus pertinent sans doute de faire la balance entre les forces en présence. Une […]


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