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To fight Taliban, US eyes Afghan tribes

Some tribes have forced insurgents from their area, but many risks remain.

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But the US has been left with little choice but to look at new options. For seven years, the US has sought to strengthen the central government as a bulwark against these potentially divisive forces. Despite billions of dollars of investment, however, chronic corruption and other factors have prevented the Afghan government from establishing the rule of law beyond the largest cities.

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Meanwhile, the security situation is worsening. The Taliban are succeeding in bolder and larger attacks, such as the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

"For all the talk about building up the Afghan National Police, nobody believes that it will have the resources to deal with [the insurgency] in time," says Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Turning to tribal leaders and their volunteer fighters, called arbakai, "is the only way to get the numbers."

Afghan arbakai push out Taliban

A year ago in Nangarhar Province, they were sorely needed. Taliban fighters had returned to the caves of Tora Bora – the last known Afghan hideout of Osama bin Laden in 2001. From Tora Bora, they struck American forces in the district. In one ambush, they disabled an American Humvee that later had to be recovered by Afghan soldiers, says Zahir, the elder.

Then, after an attack on the district headquarters itself, Governor Gul Agha Sherzai asked Zahir, a member of his administration and an elder from the area, what could be done.

First, Zahir talked to the elders of the district. Then he delivered his message to Governor Sherzai: "I told Sherzai to go back to Jalalabad, and I will be able to defend my area."

"I don't need a tank, I don't need a plane, I don't even need a single bullet," he recalls saying to the governor. "I will use sticks and I will use the guns my people have to defend themselves."

Together with the elders, Zahir collected 600 volunteers. "But as soon as they [the Taliban] had learned what we decided, they left," Zahir says.

It is efforts like these that the US is seeking to formalize and make part of a coherent Afghan strategy – a dramatic shift from even a year ago.

In January, Gen. Dan McNeill, then commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, dismissed the idea of supporting arbakai as applicable only in a few provinces, "and it's not likely to work beyond those geographic locations."

Tribal bonds: not always reliable

This remains a concern. The arbakai are strongest in the southeastern provinces adjacent to Pakistan's tribal areas, like Nangarhar. In the south, the opium trade has corrupted and weakened tribes, making any tribal-based solution there more difficult.