US defense bill approves money for Sons of Afghanistan

The defense bill signed into law by President Obama Wednesday provides money to pay Afghans to stop fighting. It's modeled after a similar successful effort in Iraq.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Barack Obama, right, reaches across to shakes hands with Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, left, after signing the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, Wednesday, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Tucked within the sprawling $680 billion defense bill (which runs to more than $1 billion for each of its 650 pages) that President Barack Obama signed into law on Wednesday afternoon is a provision that allows the Pentagon to dip into a pool of about $1.3 billion "to support the reintegration into Afghan society of those individuals who have renounced violence against the Government of Afghanistan."

While the dry language of the bill calls it "reintegration," what it amounts to is the codifying of a practice that yielded enormous success in limiting the Iraqi insurgency over the past few years: Bribing insurgents not to shoot at Americans and, perhaps, start providing the sort of intelligence help that could have headed off an attack in Kabul that killed six UN workers on Wednesday.

Paying one's enemies to come in out of the cold -- and maybe fight on your side -- is a practice that's nearly as old as warfare, and something deeply ingrained in Iraqi and Afghan tribal culture. But there was strong US cultural resistance to paying for people's acquiescence, if not allegiance, at the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The feeling was that people should want to be America's allies because they agreed with the US, not because they were on the payroll. Making friends with and financially rewarding a man who was recently trying to kill US troops also didn't sit well with many officers and soldiers.

But over time, that resistance broke down under the pressures of a war in which the US and its allies always had an overwhelming advantage in fire power, but couldn't bring it to bear on a shifting foe mixed among the general population. Paying insurgents in Iraq reached its height in 2007 and 2008, when the US paid about 90,000 Sunni Iraqi insurgents to give up their fight against the US. Some took up arms against Al Qaeda affiliates in Anbar Province, others provided information about suspicious goings on in their neighborhoods and still more simply stayed at home, happy to have an alternative to laying improvised explosive devices (many Iraqi insurgents were paid for such missions).

These groups, usually organized around a tribal leader, were known as part of the Sunni "Awakening Movement," and those among them who have gone on to fight with the US are sometimes called the "Sons of Iraq."

Will a similar effort work just as well in Afghanistan? That's hard to say, since Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places in terms of culture and terrain. But trying to identify Taliban groups that are willing to give up the fight in exchange for a better deal is central to the new counterinsurgency strategy being crafted for Afghanistan. And many strategists think an approach of pure force will fail because, as in Iraq, insurgents blend in with the local population and avoid being drawn into battles where US air and artillery dominance can be brought to bear. The total number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, of all stripes ("Taliban" is really a catch-all term for a number of different armed groups in Afghanistan), is about 25,000.

The funds will be drawn from the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), which had its genesis in the wads of cash US troops found in Saddam Hussein's palaces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Officers, frustrated with the bureaucracy that slowed down efforts to, say, fix a well in a village where their soldiers were operating, started turning to the cash they had on hand from Saddam. The practice was so successful (one Army major in Iraq told me in 2004 that "this money does more for us than bullets") that the CERP program was formalized and funded by Congress, both for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, loyalty bought and paid for can be fickle. In Iraq, the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took over responsibility for paying the Sunni Arab insurgents late last year, and there have been ongoing complaints from tribal leaders about foot-dragging in making payments and finding government jobs, as promised, for their followers.

There have been signs of the Iraq insurgency stirring once more, particularly with the massive series of truck bombs that killed more than 150 people in Baghdad on Sunday, the city's single worst attack in two years. A number of military analysts believe that some disgruntled Sons of Iraq are, at least, turning a blind eye to the activities of the hardest of the hard-core in their communities once more.

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