One More on Tribal Militias
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna
At the risk of engaging in a practice that I have come to abhor, I am going to draw a few parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing that the situations are not generally comparable. On the issue of tribal engagement, many knowledgeable regional experts have emphasized the fact that Afghan tribal structures are deteriorated in comparison with Iraq's tribal structures and that tribal authority is far from sacrosanct following decades of war.
Be that as it may, I wanted to respond to Patrick Barry’s post below discussing the implications of providing direct support for the Shinwari tribe based on their declared intention to take on the Taliban. Patrick, in response to a post by Josh Foust, is sympathetic to the notion that this type of U.S. sponsorship will undermine the Afghan government since it is premised on a form of factionalism that is inimical to the state structure.
I find this concern puzzling for the simple fact that the U.S. has gotten to this point due to the fact that it has been unable to achieve its security goals in conjunction with the central government and its subsidiary organs. At present, the Afghan security forces lack capacity and they are simply incapable of reversing the deterioration in security. And while Foust is right in pointing out that Shinwari best practices of burning down the houses of enemy sympathizers is probably not something we should be associated with, the mere fact of operating outside of the formal structures of the state is not in and of itself sufficient to doom the current efforts (which are really small-bore in relative terms in any event).
When the Sunni Awakening arose in Anbar province and, particularly, when it was replicated in concerted fashion in other mixed areas of the country, there was a great deal of concern that the United States was undermining the authority of the state by eschewing the concerns of Baghdad and supporting or orchestrating the rise of these Sunni militias. Such efforts largely contradicted some of the central goals of any counterinsurgency, namely, reinforcing the power of the state and garnering civilian support for it. Some criticisms also pointed out that the United States was now engaged with unsavory criminal characters. But these critiques definitely put the cart before the horse, so to speak.
Certainly, American support for the Awakenings was unsustainable over the long-term and their establishment created a whole series of concerns about their relationship to Baghdad and the prospects for future sectarian warfare. But they arose and spread at a time when many people within the military thought that Anbar province had been lost and sectarian civil war had begun to engulf wide swaths of the country. As such, the concerns generated by U.S. sponsorship of the various Awakening groups were, in my mind, a second-order priority to the immediate task of reversing the disastrous momentum that had brought the United States to the brink of defeat in Iraq.
Of course such arrangements are less than ideal––they represent a stark reminder of the limited capabilities of the central state and are fraught with possibilities for blowback. But bearing that in mind, the first order of business has to be the improvement of security. If this can and has to be done through more localized means then so be it. And if the U.S. military pursues such means in the midst of an insurgency then they are very likely to be dealing with and sponsoring those with suspect affiliations and former insurgents with blood on their hands. If the Afghan security forces and local authorities were more capable then a simple solution would have presented itself long ago.
Now the Shinwari might be lousy allies, as Foust indicates in his post, and this whole initiative might come to naught, but it is not as if we have a vast menu of excellent choices to choose from. And we will never even get to the point of contemplating serious negotiations with senior Taliban leaders on a political settlement or issues of improved governance capacity and human security if current trends continue on the same trajectory. As was the case in Iraq, if we have any hope of addressing those political, systemic and institutional concerns, then security will have to come first.