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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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Many tribes will want greater support to fight insurgents, namely weapons, says Mohammed Asif Karimi, a researcher at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul.

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If so, this must be done through a transparent program where weapons and warriors are registered with the central government, allowing it to monitor and manage its tribal forces. The idea of funding and forming militias that could be deployed throughout Afghanistan, Mr. Karimi says, would be tantamount to warlordism.

The government "should support groups that succeed – don't support groups you can't trust," says Mr. Cordesman, the analyst. "They will be loyal to the central government because it is the one supplying them."

The payment need not be in guns or cash. It can also come in the form of development.

Khan Mohammed Mohmand works in Nangarhar, building roads and irrigation channels as a coordinator for a US-funded effort to give farmers alternatives to growing poppy.

Before he begins a project, he sits down with the local elders. "I tell them, 'We are working in your area as long as you promise the security of our staff,' " he says. "If you don't have that guarantee, you can't even go there, much less work there."

With it, however, they have been safe. Only once in the four-year program have any workers been kidnapped. When five staffers were abducted three months ago, Mr. Mohmand appealed not to the government or to the US Army, but to the elders. The workers were returned in five days and without ransom.

"You have to stay with them and show them your commitment," he says.

In a culture founded upon jirga – the process of sitting down and resolving disputes though exhaustive talks – there are few shortcuts to establishing the trust and respect that bring security.

Winning local leaders' trust

When Col. Jalil Shamal of the Afghan National Police took command of Sorobi district in Kabul Province last month, he was coming to an area under siege.

Within the deep cleft of the Sorobi Gorge, where the highway between Kabul and the Pakistani border snakes between bare rock walls, Taliban fighters had blown up four tanker trucks bringing fuel to coalition forces.

Earlier in the summer, the Taliban had ambushed a team of French special forces on the border of the district, killing 10 in a complex maneuver that highlighted the Taliban's growing confidence and capabilities.

Yet Colonel Shamal's first order of business was to call together the elders of the district. In the following days, Shamal attended their weddings and their funerals. On Eid, a principal holiday on the Muslim calendar, he made all his top officers attend prayers in local mosques.

"I tried to find a way to convince [the elders] that the police is at their service," he says. "I told them, 'Whatever decisions you make in your area, I accept it, but you have to be in control of law and order.' "

Sorobi police commander Shamal has depended upon the tribes to do just that, and there has been no attack in Sorobi since he took command. "The villagers promised me, 'As long as you are here, nobody will be able to attack the highway. If the Taliban come, we will tell them to leave, and if we cannot make them leave, we will tell you in advance,' " he says.

Along the highway, trucker Bacha Khan agrees that the security situation has improved. "Things have gotten better since Eid," he says.

To Shamal, the tribal leaders became the connection between the people and a government that was increasingly perceived as distant and self-serving.

Shamal says: "When the people don't come to the government and when the government does not change its relation with the people, that creates a darkness, and that darkness existed in Sorobi."