Panicked Solutions

I wrote this oped with a colleague of mine in the hope it might get some coverage and – in part – help to stop the long march towards tribal militias that are being proposed as a ‘solution’ for Afghanistan. Nobody took it, so we thought we’d put it up here:

Special agents from America, Germany and Pakistan are sent to a zoo in Afghanistan to track down some missing rabbits. The western agents start looking around, surveying the field, setting up field offices and establishing contacts. The Pakistani agent goes straight to a zebra.

A few days later, the others still haven’t been able to find a rabbit, so they go over to the Pakistani agent to see how he’s getting along. When they come closer they see him beating the zebra with a big pole, shouting at the top of his lungs: “SAY I’M A RABBIT! SAY I’M A RABBIT!”
This joke was told by a highly respected tribal elder in Kandahar last week at the end of a long and frustrating conversation about American plans to engage the tribes in Afghanistan and their apparent decision to support the (re-)formation of local militias.

It would have been funnier were the situation down here not so critical. Daily NATO bombing throughout the region, occasional suicide attacks within the city, pervasive and unashamed corruption, rising food and fuel prices, and an increasingly brutal campaign of assassinations are just some of the features of everyday life for the average Kandahari.

There is no feeling that the central government in Kabul projects a legitimate source of authority down here either. The reputation of that government – and foreign powers by association – has been muddied over the past 7 years.

The early years of US raids and night abductions in Kandahar are still not forgotten; massive and unfiltered corruption has permeated to all levels of the government, often working from top-down and bottom-up at the same time; involvement of these government figures in the drug business goes on at a very high level; the central authorities are too weak to implement their decisions (and are perceived as such), and the parliament functions only as a shadow of itself; there has been no media campaign of any sophistication or that is able to respond with the speed that the Taliban themselves have proved capable; there is a concomitant lack of visible signs of development money – and much vanished in submissions back to western countries anyway; and there has been an effective, sophisticated and prioritized Taliban information and media campaign noting all of the above.

Despite this situation, on Tuesday Afghan parliamentarians emphatically spoke out against President Karzai’s own plan to arm local tribes against the Taliban drawn up by the Tribal Commission. MPs argued that the Afghan army and police force should be strengthened instead.
The authors’ own incidental experience talking to people from all kinds of backgrounds in Kandahar also offers overwhelming evidence that people fear the return of the militias.

“If the militia comes, they will do everything,” explained one friend. “They will rape my boys and my wife. There will be no more government. Now we have maybe thirty percent law in the city. With the militia there will be none. It will be the end.”
The Soviets tried funding militias before they left – the bloodletting of the 1990s civil war was the result, with only the Taliban who imposed some order and restraints on the autonomous militia groups.

Many of those living in southern Afghanistan remember those years.
So what could this tribal militia plan be useful for, then? If NATO and the US is just looking for an exit strategy – as the Soviets were in the mid-eighties – then militias might not be such a bad idea. If they just want to leave, then the militias could watch their backs. They would offer security in the very short-term, but all our aspirations to be builders of nations would have to be abandoned as the militiamen would pillage the country following the departure of foreign forces.

There is no universal strategy for Afghanistan, least of all one that seems to originate in the sands of Iraq. Kandahar is no Anbar, and the way tribes work in Afghanistan is different, more fractured, and more complex than how we found them in Iraq. To take Kandahar as an example, conflict within tribes is common, elders are being assassinated by the Taliban to leave a weak and ineffective leadership, and in any case the tribal structure was fatally damaged during the 1980s war with the Soviets.
What’s more, there is currently nobody attempting to self-fund these militias in the south. It’s not as if there’s no money, just that discussion has only been sparked because local tribesmen have heard that ‘the foreigners want to fund militias.’

Their interest is in gaining more power.
That the tribes themselves are divided and lack leadership isn’t important for them. That they’re a poor vehicle for taking control of the situation doesn’t seem to be important to those suggesting the plans. What happens, for instance, to the government once they are all rearmed? And why were millions spent on disarmament only to reverse track and change policies because NATO planners lack a sensible way to progress forward.

And this is the most dangerous part. The political strategy was left at the wayside a long time ago, and now we’re so far down the road that all vision and momentum comes from the military establishment. Negotiations with the Taliban, tribal militias and a surge (sic) are all being suggested as possible ways out of Afghanistan. But Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and these solutions will not help the people of the country. They will only add to the confusion.
All of these problems would be more manageable if coalition forces (and the development/assistance community) took the time to study the situation, to think about options instead of blindly – or worse, knowingly – running with the first suggestion that seems to give some power.

Six months spent on tour in Kandahar is never enough to get to know and understand the culture and society of the place in which NATO soldiers are operating. Ignorance is no excuse for rushing to half-baked solutions.
There needs to be better mechanisms for preserving the institutional experience and memory of the military, and wide-ranging and systematic studies of the area under NATO command – particularly in search of information relating to the powerful and shaping experience of the 1980s jihad. Only then should we start making suggestions.

Alex Strick and Felix Kuehn are the co-founders of and are the only non-embedded foreign researchers living permanently in Kandahar. They are currently editing the autobiography of a senior Taliban figure, due to be published in spring 2009 by Hurst.