22 November 2009

A Tribal "Awakening" in Afghanistan?

Dexter Filkins has a must-read article in today’s NY Times highlighting the emergence of several “anti-Taliban militias” in Afghanistan (read the full article here). The most interesting part of the article is when Filkins gives the back-story behind the formation of one specific group in the Achin district of Nangarhar province. He explains that the group began when several tribal elders got fed up with the Taliban’s encroachment into their area – one particular incident where the Taliban killed two local engineers who were building a dike in the valley seems to have served as the “tipping point.” After this, the locals stood up to the regional Taliban commander and refused to be intimidated; fighting back, killing the Taliban commander, and pushing Taliban forces out of the valley. Clearly, this is a significant event, but what does it mean in the broader sense for our efforts in Afghanistan?

To me, the first question is: How can we exploit this situation (and similar ones across the country)? Filkins explains that US SF teams have been establishing contact with some of these grass roots resistance groups, providing food, ammo, and communications gear. Clearly, top ISAF leadership is aware of these groups and is making efforts to reach out to and support them? However, this must be part of a broad, synchronized effort that includes corresponding information operations, reconstruction efforts, and offensive clearance and targeting operations to provide enduring security and reinforce the initial successes of these groups. I am reminded of the paper I recently read by MAJ Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time,” in which he lays out a strategy to establish Tribal Engagement Teams (TETs) that would enable other tribes to undertake similar offensives against the Taliban as well as reinforce those tribes who are already battling the Taliban (read his full paper here). As Gant acknowledges, this is a messy, long, and often complex problem, but it also offers great potential for success. In much the same way that some US commanders in Iraq embraced the emerging “Awakening” groups and formed the Sons of Iraq (SOI) program, we should consider a similar effort. Obviously, the tribal dynamics and isolating due to terrain are very different in Afghanistan, but I think that tribal engagements should be a key part of our revamped strategy in Afghanistan – another useful tool to provide lasting security, establish ad hoc local governance, and even stimulate the economy with salaries for those serving in the anti-Taliban militias.

And the second logical question: Do groups like this represent the first in a wave of what could become a country-wide phenomena or are these merely isolated groups motivated by local grievances? While it is tempting (and possibly even politically convenient) to view these groups as the beginnings of a larger-scale movement, we must be very cautious. Just as in Iraq, we must look at each village differently, understanding all of the unique elements of the operating environment (history, personalities of leaders, economic situation, terrain, enemy disposition, etc.) before trying to force “awakening” groups down the throats of Afghan tribal elders. Each tribe/village must be allowed to develop these groups on their own, based on the complex dynamics at work in that area – all of which will occur at different rates (or maybe not at all in some areas). Ultimately, US forces must be able to support and legitimize someone in each area who can show measurable progress for the people in terms of security, governance, services, and economics. In some places, this will be the tribal leaders, in others it may be the local district governor, in others it will be a strong ANSF commander. Tactical commanders must be empowered and resourced to recognize these power brokers (based on a deep understanding of the operational environment), empower them, and then support them when the Taliban forces try to intimidate, attack, and delegitimize them. We must take the lessons we learned from the Awakening groups in Iraq and not repeat the same mistakes made some places there.

Ultimately, the formation of these anti-Taliban militias in some parts of the country offers true hope for progress and short/mid-term success. However, we must determine how to weave these groups into the structure of the elected national, provincial, and district government in order to legitimize the Afghan government. Without doing this, we are ultimately battling ourselves. We must also hope that the Taliban continue to shoot themselves in the foot, creating grievances with the local populace that will finally move them beyond the “tipping point.” The frustrating part is that US forces can’t make this happen. All we can (and must) continue to do is provide security and create the conditions for groups like this to form.

It’s too early to tell exactly how this will all play out, but I think there’s some serious potential here…


  1. I have found the argument from the Ghosts of Alexander blog that the tribal dynamic is at best very different in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq, with no clear hieratic system or group response. At the moment I honestly wish I were able to actually speak with the populace instead of relying on so many contradicting views.

  2. Grant: Unfortunately, I can only speak accurately about the tribal dynamic in Iraq - having spent over 27 months there. Cleary, the operating environment in Afghanistan is different. However, MAJ Gant's paper offers some pretty good insight from a veteran officer with extensive time in Afghanistan. The only concern, however, is that MAJ Gant was in Afghanistan several years ago and the dynamic may have changed. I'd be very interested to get some input from any of our readers/authors who have recent experience in Afghanistan.

    What I do want to point out though, is that just like in Iraq, tribal dynamics are different from village to village and valley to valley. We can't dismiss an entire program (in this case the Community Defense Initiative) just because it might not work in all areas. As I said in my post, it will work in some and won't in others (all at different rates), but could still serve as one component to what must be a multi-pronged COIN approach.

    I agree that it can be dangerous to assume that what worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan. However, we can't be afraid to take some risk and work in the gray areas to achieve short/mid-term security while improving governance and establishing a legitimate, long-term solution. Clearly, previous efforts have fallen short. I think it's worth trying something that worked elsewhere (taking into account local factors of course).

  3. For more details on the Community Defense Initiative (which Filkins' article refers to), see this good article in the UK Guardian from today: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/22/us-anti-taliban-militias-afghanistan

    Jon Boone provides some more background and details on the program that is reportedly already under way in 14 different regions of the country. I expect that we'll see a mixture of success and failure depending on the complex dynamics at work in each district, but I still believe that this is the way to go.

    Rather than relying on the previous program established by GEN McKiernan (the Afghan Public Protection Force), which required a time-intensive vetting and setup process, the new program backed by McChrystal accepts some risk in loosening vetting restrictions and de-centralizing authority - empowering local SF teams (and hopefully eventually maneuver commanders) to work with anti-Taliban elements.

    It's comforting to see that the current ISAF leadership understand that COIN is messy and sometimes involves working within the gray areas and accepting risk (within limits). Hopefully the initial successes of the program are able to spread to other areas.

  4. Another good article in today's NY Times (again from Dexter Filkins) covering reconciliation efforts. Read the full story at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/28/world/asia/28militias.html?_r=1

    This article focuses on a group of 25 tribal elders from across Kandahar province who are starting "jobs programs" to employ local Afghans while working on contracts paid for by both US and Afgan funding. This type of program, when combined with anti-Taliban militias that I previously discussed, will be another critical part of driving a wedge between the Taliban and the local populace. It will be very interesting to see if any tangible results come from these programs...