To fight Taliban, US eyes Afghan tribes

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

Mark Sappenfield/The Christian Science Monitor
Tribal leader: Hajji Malik Zahir opposed the Taliban.
Mark Sappenfield/The Christian Science Monitor
Truck driver Bacha Khan says security in his area near Kabul has improved since the police asked tribal leaders for help.
Mark Sappenfield/The Christian Science Monitor
Help? Elders of the Mohmand tribe meet in Jalalabad. NATO may try to recruit such leaders – and their fighters – against the Taliban.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

With sticks, knives, and 600 men drawn from his own tribe, Hajji Malik Zahir did what the armies of Afghanistan and America could not: He drove the Taliban from his district.

Now, the United States increasingly wants to encourage other tribal elders in Afghanistan to do the same. In what is taking shape as a substantial policy shift, it wants to use tribes to bring law and order to the vast areas of the country beyond the government's authority.

The successful uprising of tribal chiefs in Iraq against Al Qaeda – the "Anbar Awakening" – has created momentum, as has endemic corruption in President Hamid Karzai's government.

The government is not competent enough to deal with the dire threats now facing Afghanistan, says Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corp., a security consultancy in Arlington, Va., that works with the Pentagon. "This means working with the tribal leaders," he says.

Such a policy promises great risk and reward. Done carelessly, it could unleash the tribal and ethnic forces that led to civil war in the early 1990s, warns tribal leader Mr. Zahir, as well as analysts. Yet his experience – and that of aid agencies and local law-enforcement officials – suggests that tribal elders can often deliver results that the government alone cannot.

In a Pentagon briefing last week the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, said: "It seems to me that, with the lead of the government of Afghanistan, engaging those tribes and connecting them to governance – whether it's at the provincial level or the district level – seems to be a smart thing to do to assist with the security of a huge country."

US fears reviving civil war

It has taken Washington seven years to get to this point, largely because of the tremendous dangers and complications inherent in such a policy.

As recently as the 1980s, America was arming and training local fighters in Afghanistan to drive out the Soviet Army. The result was four years of civil war after the Soviets withdrew, as the new warlords fought each other, killing thousands. The chaos led to the rise of the Taliban.

Moreover, Afghanistan is an enormously complex web of intersecting tribal and ethnic allegiances that must be negotiated with great delicacy. Bolstering one Pashtun tribe in eastern Afghanistan, for example, could upset Tajiks and Hazaras in the north – who feel that their old foes are being strengthened – as well as rival Pashtun clans in the south.

For this reason, a consensus is emerging here and in Washington that whatever program emerges must be run by the Afghan government itself – perhaps by the police or Army.

"I would not want [NATO] military commanders to be trying to decide which tribe should they support without letting the Afghan government do that," said General McKiernan.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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