Arming the Tribes

by Joshua Foust on 11/19/2007


The U.S. military has stumbled upon a somewhat novel solution to the mess in the NWFP of Pakistan: arming the tribes to fight al-Qaeda. There are several problems with this:

  • It is based on the “model” supplied by arming local tribes against AQI in Anbar, Iraq, yet the turnaround in that province began months before the “surge” provided any U.S.-supplied means to battle AQI. I do not believe the ground situation today in, say, Swat, is anything like it was in Baqubah last September (to say nothing of what happened to those tribal leaders who did collaborate with the U.S.).
  • The is a much more complex relationship in places like Waziristan between tribes, extremists, the Taliban, ISI, and al-Qaeda, than there ever was in Iraq. Making those distinctions—and more importantly, recognizing those connections—is vitally important.
  • It will still be a largely Pakistan-led effort. This is in part by necessity (Musharraf would never survive a major American assault on extremists in his territory), but the Pakistani Army has also shown a tendency to surrender rather than fight their “brothers.”
  • Simply beefing up economic aid won’t address any of the grievances by “on the fence” tribal chiefs (which has more to do with their overall place in Pakistani society, and a feeling of being marginalized), nor will it play into the COIN doctrine of intentionally coopting locals—USAID has had something of a tin ear for local considerations in the region.

There are probably more concerns to think about here. The idea of finally addressing the tribal areas with direct, concerted action is a welcome one, even if it is years past when it should have happened. But the NWFP and surrounding areas is more than a few hundred million dollars away from being a non-issue: these sorts of efforts take many years, often decades, and without a concerted effort to bring about good governance from Islamabad and a rectification of the isolation and religious values of the locals I would be deeply surprised if it came to much.

Update: John Robb, author of the excellent Brave New War, has posted a discussion of the rise of what he called “open source warfare,” and how it might relate to other insurgencies and fracturing societies. One of the key attributes of these open source militias is that they form spontaneously, without the knowledge or urging of the central government (or, as would naturally follow, the occupying foreign power). It confirms my initial thoughts on comparing the Anbar experience to Waziristan: unless the decision to fight is an organic one raised from “below”—that is, not at the behest of any larger authority—relying on such a strategy is, at the very least, highly unreliable. I’m glad he and I agree.

Update 2: Also offering argument for the mistake of this policy is Bill Roggio, one of the few right-leaning blogger/journalists to have demonstrated a good grasp of the frothy tribal/Taliban/AQ mixture that is so damned tough to unravel. He suggests more, rather than less, U.S. involvement, which gives me pause (see Michael O’Hanlon’s disappointing case for invading Pakistan for one reason why such a stance could be easily misinterpreted), but that doesn’t make it a bad policy, merely one that might require a deft hand in advocating its use. Musharraf, however, would never stand for such a thing, which would require removing him from power in a way that installs an even more sympathetic leader… which is another way of saying it could never happen. Our involvement in Pakistan is stretched the the limit. But that makes me wonder: might we be able to lean on China?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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