U.S. News Discovers Arbakai, Globe Trembles

by Joshua Foust on 12/16/2008 · 5 comments

Noah Shachtman (who, full disclosure, links to Registan.net several times in the post) points us to this article in U.S. News & World Report about… ASOP!

The U.S. military will soon launch a pilot program to raise local militias, paid by the Pentagon, in an effort to improve security throughout the country.

The plan is modeled in part on a similar program in Iraq to build up Sunni neighborhood militias. But officials warn that the forces must be carefully vetted to avoid repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan’s past, notably bolstering local warlords…

The new program in Afghanistan, tentatively dubbed the Afghanistan Social Outreach Program, has a number of backers. Two weeks ago, it was approved by President Karzai, with the endorsement of the ministers of interior and defense. “There is common agreement among the Afghan leadership, people, and international forces that there needs to be a bottom-up approach to security and progress in this country, as well as a top-down central government approach,” says Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

There’s actually very little tentative about it. This was the subject of Spencer Ackerman’s hype yesterday, and it’s nothing new or particularly interesting—just the latest in a long line of similarly-structured-yet-underfunded schemes to repeat Iraq in Afghanistan. Indeed, ASOP—only one of many local governance and security programs run by the Independent Directorate for Local Governance and other ministries of Afghanistan—lies at the heart of the so-called U.S.—Afghan Strategic Partnership. Which has been discussed quite openly for months.

So much for breaking news, U.S. News. But Noah gets major kudos for the skeptical reporting—it’s a refreshing change from most coverage of Afghanistan these days.

Update: Noah posted a caution from William “Mac” McCallister, who is well regarded for his work in co-opting the Awakening Movement in Iraq (and, based on my interactions with him, really really smart). Mac warns that this push to arm local tribes “may inadvertently empower a given local political authority who in turn will reestablish and reinforce the traditional means for managing violence.” Only, he sells it as maybe a good thing.

I’m afraid, though, it’s a safe bet that this is not at all a good thing. “Traditional means for managing violence” in Southern Afghanistan, for example, created the conditions under which the Taliban were able to emerge and successfully (if somewhat deceitfully) sell themselves as Robin Hood figures, protecting regular folks from marauding warlords. In the East, with very few exceptions, the traditional political authorities are in fact village and/or tribal elders and/or the local mullahs or maulvis—who do not share power equally, do not exist in a “traditional” sense of the word (that is, in-line with how communities functioned pre-Soviet Invasion), and very much will not invigorate the social and moral fabric of society.

Rather, we can expect hyper-localized fighting as competing factions try to settle long simmering disputes (i.e. the Mangal-Sabari clash in Khost), with the added worry that arbakai are not responsible to higher authorities.

In other words, the very idea behind local militias is about establishing, and then arming, a significant challenge to central government authority, a situation rife for further conflict between local ASOP militias and the ANA or ANP or even U.S. troops should the militia feel community interests clash with American interests. Which kind of undermines the very idea of a counterinsurgency, which should be about connecting people to their government.

Update 2: I think I caught something between Mr. Gopal’s report (see the Ackerman link, above) and Ms. Mulrine, the reporter for U.S. News. Gopal indicates that ASOP officials think ASOP is only about governance, and there will be a separate initiative set up to build militias and cleave locals from the Taliban; Mulrine quotes someone at Bagram saying they are one and the same.

At least, that’s how it looks at first glance. Anyone else notice that? Is ASOP just about local governance, and the folks at Bagram (and therefore Mulrine) is badly mistaken about what it is? Or did Gopal draw a distinction where none exists?

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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 Registan.net. 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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Azar Balkhi December 17, 2008 at 5:43 am

The idea of establishing Arbakai tribal militias is very dangerous for our people and it’s a trick that may take us back to warlordism. United Nations spent billions of dollars disarming those irresponsible militias but now Karzai’s ethno fascist team trying to mislead the entire world and arm the Pashtun people again . These tribes are all drown in tribal rivalry. They kill each other women and children everyday while having no weapons. They hint to one other as Taliban Insurgents and ask the NATO Forces for bombing. It’s an easy way for them to get rid of their rivals. What do you think will happen when they become armed?

The tribal militias have a bloody barbaric and savagery history in Afghanistan. Whenever the southern Pashtun become armed, they looted northern part of the country. They even stole innocent women and sold them to the Middle Eastern sex markets.

sayke December 17, 2008 at 8:18 am

update 2 is correct. asop has absolutely nothing to do with security-sector recruitment or arming – it’s a governence intiative, being run out of the democracy & governance office at usaid. as such, it won’t be arming anyone.

the military is horribly, and typically, confused. they want arbakai because fighting and training people to fight is what they know how to do, regardless of the fact that it would be an absolutely terrible idea. they got an idea (anbar militia tribal good guys give guns fight bad guys whoooo!!!) and are going to try to run with it, regardless of the inevitable disasterous consequences.

if the military wants to recruit for ana and anp using asop, well, whatever, fine, but they should be doing that anyway at any shura that convenes. instead they sit around in their PRTs waiting for people to ask them for money. ugh…

Rabia December 20, 2008 at 9:25 pm

another argument against such strategies is that once such militias are raised, they had better receive adequate support or their defeat will just further demoralize the population and strengthen the Taliban’s hand. At least in Pakistan, thegruesome sto story this week about Pir Samiullah, who led a barelvi lashkar against the militants in Swat. After killing him, the swati militants actually exhumed his body and hanged it as a warning to anyone who decided that taking up arms against them was a good idea.

Rabia December 20, 2008 at 9:27 pm

whoops, that should have been:
At least in Pakistan, the gruesome story this week about Pir Samiullah who led a Barelvi lashkar against the militants in Swat illustrates this problem.

Wim Roffel December 22, 2008 at 8:10 am

In my opinion the idea is misrepresented. Think of it as a kind of democracy: Anbar worked because the local population felt little inclination to support Shiite troops (that bahved like occupying forces) against the Taliban. So it pays to have troops with local support.

In Afghanistan there is a similar problem. The Karzai regime that the US brought to power is much more centralized than Afghanistan historically has been. It appoints provincial governors that have little local connections and as a consequence are often quite powerless. I am aware of the pitfalls of warlords and ethnic militias in multi-ethnic areas, but I do believe that there is much to win with having troops, police and administrators that have local connections.

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