Obama's Afghanistan plan: the warlord factor
We owe it to our troops and to our Afghan friends to put the very best American and Afghan leaders in the provinces.
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Members of his national security team rightly stress that Afghan tribal elders and warlords have allied with the Taliban and other extremists not because of ideology or religion, but for reasons of self-interest. Therefore, those Afghans could be convinced to switch sides if the United States made it worth their while.
Working with Afghan tribal elders and warlords is sometimes characterized as a new approach, but the US has actually pursued it with mixed results since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Before Mr. Obama seriously considers going further down that road, he should review those results carefully.
At first, Washington threw in its lot with local warlords who had amassed power and wealth in the 1980s and '90s. Unfortunately, the ceding of provincial administrations and police forces to the warlords proved disastrous in much of the country, as they robbed and raped with alarming frequency.
More recently, NATO forces have experimented with supporting tribal security forces or, in the case of several European countries, by paying tribes to refrain from violence. Some tribal security forces, particularly those with strong leaders or able American partners, have swept the insurgents from large areas. Others have used their authority to oppress neighboring tribes, turning them into insurgents. Still others, such as the Afghan National Auxiliary Police in 2007 and 2008, defected.
Tribes that took money in exchange for local cease-fires provided sanctuary to insurgents, enabling them to recuperate after combat and recruit additional fighters.
Because of the deals there has been a short-term reduction of NATO casualties. But local truces have not curbed the appetites of hard-core insurgents for violence elsewhere, so subsequent losses have outweighed any benefits.
Each Afghan valley has its own politics, with its own peculiar blend of warlords, tribal leaders, foreign fanatics, Afghan government personnel, and NATO troops. Allegiances can shift quickly, and often in ways known only to Afghans.
The elites in an Afghan province cannot be managed effectively from Washington, nor even from Kabul in most cases. Winning the tribes over is best left to Afghan provincial governors and Afghan and American battalion commanders, who can keep abreast of the shifting local dynamics and customize military and political actions accordingly.