Tribes and Sourcing

by Joshua Foust on 12/5/2007 · 2 comments

Generally, as a rule, if something isn’t sourced well it is rubbish. This is especially the case with “open source intelligence” groups like STRATFOR—their wildly incoherent speculation (and claims of Bush’s brilliant political acumen) are so ludicrous and unsupportable it probably isn’t surprising they can’t source a thing they say. If only they were alone. A similar group, Strategy Page, is fond of much the same thing. Why, if you were to read them, the Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan are not only not separate entities controlled by bitter enemies united only through their hatred of the U.S., but the same contiguous organization—and they are involved in two simultaneous, coordinated insurgencies; Islamic terrorism in Europe and Somalia has been solved; and there is no Al Qaeda in Morocco. How can they say things of such questionable veracity? No one knows—they hate footnotes and citations.

Anyway. Strategy Page asserts that “Al Qaeda” (is it just one single monolithic global organization now?) is “moving its main effort to Afghanistan” because the Taliban in Pakistan are the only place they can thrive. So far, so good—hell, Ahmed Rashid, who literally wrote the book on the Taliban (it’s worth reading, despite its explicit racism), says much the same thing. They would have been okay if they had badly mischaracterized the nature of contemporary Islamist radicalism but got the gist of Afghanistan’s importance right. Alas.

In the rest of the world, al Qaeda has caused itself lots of problems by using terror tactics against Moslems (who refused to support the terrorists). This approach worked, for a while, but eventually the Moslem victims had enough and turned on al Qaeda. There have already been some clashes in Pakistan, between angry tribesmen, and al Qaeda groups that tried to use force to get what they wanted. To many of the Pushtun tribes along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier, the al Qaeda gunmen are seen as haughty foreigners, who look down on Pushtuns, and are quick to use force on anyone who gets in their way.

To take advantage of this, U.S. forces are talking to Afghan tribes about opposing al Qaeda, and letting the Americans help them do it. The news of what al Qaeda did in Iraq gets around, as does the eventual angry reaction of Iraqis. The U.S. is offering the potentially anti-al Qaeda tribes weapons, equipment and other aid. This might work, as the Afghan tribes are amenable to gifts, especially from someone they have shared interests with.

Oh Lordy. “Moslems?” Did the nineteenth century just show up again for some reason? Was “Mohammedans” axed in editing?

It is a dangerous game to refer to “Afghan tribes,” as it glosses over not just Pashto tribal conflicts (which may well be lessening in importance as time progresses), but also the other ethnic frictions that exist all over the country. Since they are most likely referring to the effort to arm the “possibly anti al-Qaeda” southern Pashto tribes against the Taliban (no one knows, though, since they don’t have any references), they also seem to miss precisely why this is such a horrible idea. The concept is very much a double-edged sword: the Taliban bomb Afghans, yes, but Afghans as a whole are also so fatigued of the West’s long string of broken promises, empty and meaningless promises of progress and development, and consistent underinvestment in security. All of the caveats expressed to the idea of trying to replicate Anbar in NWFP apply here as well, plus a very salient point: it is precisely those tribes that are so furious with the U.S. and ISAF for its inability to protect them. They are joining the Taliban in droves not because we don’t give them enough guns but because we promise them economic development then spray their poppy fields. Naturally, the solution is to provide them more weapons but not more reconstruction aid or economic development.

All of this would be deeply frustrating, except for one thing: at least Strategy Page has good company, in that the U.S. government still seems to have its priorities all screwed up. No, wait, that is actually more frustrating. Afghanistan deserves better than this child’s excuse for thought being passed off as serious commentary.

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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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Fabius Maximus December 7, 2007 at 10:32 am

Great post!

As for trying to replicate Anbar in NWFP, are we sure our methods worked in Anbar? We’ve leased some support, at the cost of trashing our primary political objectives. Perhaps good things will follow. Perhaps not.

Nathan December 7, 2007 at 10:59 am

Even if it did work in Anbar, the nature of tribes and social organization in Pashtunistan is different enough that the approach can’t be easily replicated. Here’s what the Kabul Weekly had to say Wednesday about the plan to arm the tribes:

America should be very careful about this issue. America provided Golboddin Hekmatyar with plentiful financial and military assistance during the years of jihad [holy war]. A large number of anti-aircraft Stinger missiles were given to Hekmatyar, but he promoted his popularity with the money and weapons donated by America. It was obvious that he was against America during the first war of America and Iraq over the liberation of Kuwait and announced his support for [late Iraqi President] Saddam Hossain. Later, he used US weapons and money against the mojaheddin government. He is now fighting against America and its allies in Afghanistan by using the money given to him by America through the Pakistani intelligence service.

If the US army gives money and weapons to the tribes in Afghanistan at the moment to enable them fight against the Taleban, there is no guarantee that these US weapons and money are not used against America either at the moment or in the future. Moreover, any step taken by America aimed at provision of arms to the tribes in the south will create political unrest in Afghanistan and make other Afghan tribes lose their trust in America. This is because other tribes in Afghanistan, in particular the residents of the north and central Afghanistan, consider the provision of money and weapons to the tribes in the south as a potential threat against themselves in the future.

Therefore, the provision of weapons and money to the tribes will have very unpleasant political consequences. It is impossible to predict them. Undoubtedly, it will harm America and the current process in Afghanistan.

Therefore, it is better for Robert Gates to treat this disease, namely the Taleban, by outlining a strategy of use military force, strengthen the Afghan army and heal the wound of the Pakistani tribal areas. This is both in the interest of America and Afghanistan.

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