McCallister on Tribal Militias

by Joshua Foust on 12/21/2008 · 5 comments

A word on the Afghanistan Social Outreach Program (ASOP). Noah Shachtman linked to a US News report last week about ASOP, and the report claimed it was about arming tribes to combat the insurgency. He posted some comments from William “MAC” McCallister, one of the architects of the Anbar Awakening, who was enthusiastic about the idea. I wasn’t a fan of how the blockquote read, but Mr. McCallister sent me his full comments, and they’re worth considering:

The motivating thought behind “going for it” is that I believe our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are based on “adventure learning.” We have no book solutions or technical blueprints handy and therefore muddle through the best we can based on a trial and error method. It is a bit funny that we inadvertently revert back to TTPs first executed by the British in the region. We appear to be learning the same lessons-by-doing vice lessons-by-reading. On the other hand, maybe what the Brits did and what we appear to be doing now are actually the appropriate TTPs since they resonate with the local population…

More, and some comments, after the jump.

We are engaged in irregular warfare of which the strategic purpose is to gain influence and popular support. The operational focus is on the “relevant” population and the operational objective to exploit the legitimacy of the relevant population’s legitimate political authority in order to shape, control or influence that relevant population.

The premise will work. It has been implemented successful before and not only in Anbar Province, Iraq. Here are the result of my wargaming the potential unintended consequences based on the effects this initiative might engender within the cultural frame of reference of the target audience.

A little background follows. Our COIN policy continues to express a stability, security and development strategy. The strategy aims to provide security for the development process to generate popular support for a given regime by promoting better government and economic progress without violating the local government’s newly won sovereignty. As a technique it supposes to strengthen weak or unstable governments over periods of internal upheaval until the forces of political and economic development are strong enough to control the situation without external assistance.It also seeks to prevent latent insurgencies from breaking out by strengthening weak points in threatened societies and where this fails to minimize the risk of U.S. troops from actively getting involved in the fighting.

The challenge with this approach is that policymakers may misunderstand the causes of insurgency, underestimate the constraints on an ally’s willingness and capacity to make suggested reforms, and overestimate the U.S. role as an outside promoter of stability, security and development. The policy is also subject to internal constraints and restraints whether political manipulation, managerial weaknesses, inter and intra-agency rivalries and sometimes downright sabotage by implementing agencies. Therefore, our political and military initiatives will devolve into the art of the possible.

The current objective appears to be focused on gaining a monopoly of violence and establishing a central governing authority capable of penetrating all sectors of society. The initial approach is to centralize authority only to redistribute power later on. We also seek to empower the central government to define and enforce the rules of behavior between the various social groups and communities i.e. “rule of law” regardless of the existing codes of conduct and behavior in play. In the process we are breaking and severing existing social bonds and social contracts.

The reality is expressed as a struggle for penetration and predominance by the central government and push-back by the existing centers of social power. This has evolved into political maneuvering by all sides to get the best deal possible with compromises and accommodations reached between some but not others. We are engaged in the renegotiation of the social contract Afghani style where fighting is a form of negotiations.

It appears that every piece of territory is owned and controlled by some group and its sovereignty and autonomy fiercely defended against outsiders. In theory, each piece of territory has some type of “representational” governance inherent in the social system in the form of the Jirga. The traditional mechanisms to manage violence appear to have broken down. Arming local fighters should assist in defending local territories but also to reinforce the sovereignty and autonomy of those territories.

Arming local fighters in an attempt to empower the Afghan government may not achieve the intended result if these security forces effectively take their orders from those with rules quite different from those espoused by state leaders. On the other hand our strategy may inadvertently empower a given local political authority who in turn will reestablish and reinforce the traditional means for managing violence. This is/does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. The social system could start fresh since many of the modernists that participated in governance before the experiment in collectivism, Soviet occupation and Taliban rule are gone. The state building process could begin anew founded on traditional governance and codes of behavior. This may surprise us since we have a tendency to think in terms of change not continuity. Afghanistan may decentralize to the maximum in accordance with existing patterns of social behavior. On the other hand, why not recognize ALL legitimate political authorities in Afghanistan and the FATA. No need to hand over credibility and legitimacy to the Taliban without first challenging them politically. And this is best done at the local and not the national level. Our diplomats would be challenged to deal with this situation for sure since they have only experienced state-state relationships but the world is as it is.

My personal recommendation: Go for it.

MAC is right on that focusing on the “relevant” population is key—in this case, the Pashtun areas of the country. He’s also absolutely right in saying (in effect) that the U.S. needs to unpack how and why people make decisions, in part by looking at the root causes of a given insurgency. He is also absolutely right in saying the U.S./NATO needs to recognize the domestic political constraints on Kabul, and more importantly, that the Coalition as a whole needs to drop the assumption that locals will automatically see us as good and noble agents of peace.

In other words, we need to give Afghans, mostly Pashtuns, a reason to think that their fortunes, interests, and lifestyles are better served by cooperating with us, than by cooperating with the Taliban. The trick to this approach is that they have to believe we’ll stick around to insulate them from retribution—something we are comically, and tragically, unable to do with the Light Footprint strategy.

I also sense from these comments that MAC sees the fundamental flaw in the arming-the-tribes strategy, in that it negates the idea of building up a central government, and more importantly violates the state monopoly on violence. But I also get the sense he thinks the risk is worth it, since he believes the social systems in place to be malleable enough to accommodate to the new security infrastructure.

I am not as optimistic. Afghanistan functions best with a credible but mostly distant foreign government; the current political system, with a hyper-centralized government and no representation at the district and provincial level—in that District sub-governors and provincial governors are not elected like American mayors and governors, but appointed by Kabul and serving at the whim of President Karzai—is fundamentally flawed. Afghanistan traditionally functions best with local autonomy to varying degrees, with each area negotiating on its own the terms of how much it will interact with the government.

MAC is right to see that there are informal political structures, and that we would be right to work through them. But I don’t see why that has to involve arming tribal militias. Even though Afghanistan has never really had a police force in the sense we Westerners would recognize one, it has had an army for a long time. The idea of centralized authority is not anathema to many local communities, they just want a stake in that central authority (as one example: the Safi Rebellion of the 1940’s was most likely sparked by Kabul’s insistence on conscripting young men from Kunar without regard for Safi communities’ needs and desires… but it wasn’t about the legitimacy of Army conscription, at least as told to David Edwards).

Which is where ASOP comes in. Based on this Chief of Mission job posting, I’m pretty sure Anand Gopal was right and Anna Mulrine wrong about ASOP’s role in recruiting, training, or funding tribal militias. Namely, it doesn’t have one. They are two separate, but related, programs. I suspect Ms. Mulrine probably could have asked some ASOP officials instead of relying on the press officer at KAF, but that is a different post. It just sounds like someone along the way got confused with the idea to deliberately strengthen and then arm tribal groups across the east and south, and ASOP, which is specifically about local governance and fulfilling the Afghan constitution.

That second idea is a dandy one. The first one, as MAC hinted at, has a rather spectacular record of failure (i.e. the British). Empowering local government to represent community needs to a responsive and legitimate government is one of the best things the U.S. could do for the counterinsurgency; why they think arming unaccountable tribal militias (anyone who thinks they can be held accountable is simply naïve) is a good idea escapes me. Afghanistan needs many things, but more non-government militias is not one of them.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


David December 22, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Adventure learning” can be a justification for approaches that condone reluctance to exploit the resources available — many which are obscure and difficult to understand for war-fighters or non-kinetic operators alike – for making sense of the social and political setting. Paralysis by the quest for comprehensive knowledge is a risk but we and the Afghans have suffered through seven years where there’s been plenty of “adventure learning” coupled with expectations that our wealth, good intentions and can-do spirit will be enough to prevail.

Our efforts to tease out the local entities with whom to interact, whether through arming them as militias or otherwise seeking out authorities responsible for a particular territory founder over the reality that many regions in Afghanistan have no effective discernible traditional authority or centers of local power apart from the particular situation or issue.

Even the notion that territory is owned or controlled on an exclusive basis is overly simplified: it is the extractable resources that are controlled to the extent that they can be exploited, not the territory itself. Thus, it’s possible that one corporate unit has rights to till the land and use a certain amount of water, while another one may have rights to bring its animals to the land to graze on the fields after the crops have been harvested. Another group may have only the right for its herds cross and graze the land in the early spring. To assume that all territory has a discrete, unique ownership which exercises preeminent control reflects mirror-imaging that doesn’t even conform to concepts of ownership in our own society if you think about sub-surface mineral rights, usurpation by asserting over-riding public interests and the like.

While the idea that arming a group to protect and control a territory sounds straight-forward, in many places where different resources are differently controlled by different groups, the shift in the power balance by arming one group can have dangerous consequences. The Hazara-Pashtun tensions in the Hazarajat are the most obvious, but comparable situations are present elsewhere, such as in eastern Afghanistan where the Gujar populations who had exploited surpluses seasonal pastoral resources are being squeezed out by intensified pastoral activities by the populations who control the majority of the pastoral resources. (The arming by Communist regimes of the Gujars, ostensibly for them to battle enemies of the Kabul regime, changed the balance of power in the Kunar/Nuristan region that continues to foster instability and armed conflict decades later.)

Also the idea that Afghanistan is distinguished by discrete communities with latent political structures and authorities who can exercise control over individuals within that population crumbles before a careful investigation of Afghan realities. Local government may sound like a sensible concept but it’s not clear there’s the economic, political and social basis for locals to join together generally in common purpose.

(The experience of the National Solidarity Program does not contradict this Afghan reality. There can be no dispute that Afghans can join together to extract resources from outsiders if that’s what required to get them, but this does not translate into an inclination for Afghans to decide matters jointly where they do not define explicit common interests.)

Afghans focus their attention on their units that share in economic production and consumption. These may not be one in the same and may vary based on the particular activity involved. Beyond these purpose-defined entities, they tend not to have exclusive membership in groups that are discrete and shape their interactions across a spectrum of activities with one another and outsiders.

“Take me to your shura,” will inevitably result in being taken to a group of individuals who are presented as the local shura. These individuals’ influence, prominence and effectiveness cannot be assumed just because they’re presented as the representatives of a particular community.

I’ll be more comfortable with the ASOP and its proponents when I see an explicit recognition of the nature of social and political organization in rural Afghanistan and acknowledgment that there do not exist discrete, enduring entities having a range of interests and commonalities that can be mobilized and dealt with through a local political authority figure capable of leading them in pursuit of interests of the outsiders, whether the Coalition or the Afghan central government.

There’s a need to address these realities, to recognize that the challenge is not just to recruit, screen and arm local groups, but that this effort demands a direct and active involvement in understanding the nature of local sociopolitical environment and then constant, informed monitoring and engagement with the armed entities to ensure that they operate in pursuit of the objectives that prompted their establishment. This will be costly, time-consuming and require operators who are willing to be grounded in the knowledge and understanding gleaned through those researchers who have devoted years to figuring out how these societies operate. These operators must also be committed to staying at the task long enough and close enough to learn the personalities and context and figuring out to work effectively with them.

Given the enthusiasm for some to look back to the British experience as offering guidance on how to operate effectively in the region, they must not forget that among the Brits were many dedicated souls who spent their entire professional careers living and working and, on occasion, dying while dealing with the locals on the Frontier. We are a long, long way from developing such expertise and competence on the region anywhere in our government, nor are we likely to do so.

William S. McCallister December 22, 2008 at 5:44 pm

Dear Dave,

I compliment you on a very thorough and comprehensive assessment on a number of challenges we face in Afghanistan. Josh and I briefly discussed the challenge inherent in writing a short opinion piece which only scratches the surface of the complexities and subtleties that are hidden below. Josh is one of the smartest people I know on this subject and many of his simple comments contain much implicit understanding that took years of study and experience to gather. I therefore wholeheartedly agree with you that we should not forget “that among the Brits were many dedicated souls who spent their entire professional careers living and working and, on occasion, dying while dealing with the locals on the Frontier” and that we require “operators (who) must also be committed to staying at the task long enough and close enough to learn the personalities and context and figuring out to work effectively with them.”

The challenge we face in Afghanistan is that there are many like yourself that have studied and it appears to have experienced the complexities in person but who have not signed on to stay up-country for the duration. So, what do we do for those that rotate in and out of country? What do we do for those that experience only a specific region and its peculiar idiosyncrasies yet are charged with integrating their actions and activities into a greater strategy design? I fear that all we can do is to simplify the complex as best as we can but we all know how difficult it is to simplify the complex. It is damn hard and challenged at every turn by others who will respond with “yes, but”. I too have experienced many of the social complexities you highlight in your response. Anbar wasn’t simple no matter what is now written about the place after the fact.

I concur that it appears that there exist no discrete and “enduring entities having a range of interests and commonalities that can be mobilized and dealt with through a local political authority figure capable of leading them in pursuit of interests of the outsiders, whether the Coalition or the Afghan central government”. So what do we do? One course of action is to conquer all communities regardless of their competing interests and impose a political authority. How did Ahmad Shah Durrani accomplish this task in 1747? Another would be to deal with each community separately. A third option would be to leave all communities to their own devices. These are just three. Maybe we should stop seeking answers in the British experience and study Afghan history itself such as Ahmad Shah Durrani to gain a greater appreciation for what might or what might not resonate with the local population. I can’t help but sense that we are beginning to transition away from an altruistic position of helping the Afghan people and moving toward just establishing a semblance of stability so as to depart sooner rather than later. I empathize with your comment that “we are a long, long way from developing such expertise and competence on the region anywhere in our government, nor are we likely to do so” but I fear that it is not a solid argument upon which to base a viable exit strategy. It appears that our political and military initiatives in Afghanistan are rapidly devolving into the art of the possible. So, what is to be done?

Thanks for your response. I have learned much.



Joshua Foust December 22, 2008 at 6:12 pm


I know Dave, and while I won’t say in what context, I can say that he has put in his time already in service to his country in Afghanistan. He has literally decades of experience in the country, in fact. What we need, as we all seem to be in agreement about, is more Daves.

From my own experiences on the periphery of the military and the federal government, I can say that right now government service — even as a contractor — tends to disincentivize dedicated regional service. The Army never keeps active duty soldiers in-country past 15 months (at the maximum). More often than not, the next tour of duty is elsewhere — out of region if not out of country. PRTs deploy for 9 months now. Many NATO countries deploy for 6 or less. The Airforce is usually around 4 months on-station. Even the State Department, which allows up to 3 years in a normal posting length, prohibits extended stays in any one area.

So the problems we face in terms of building governmental capacity are really big. This cuts against the military’s tendencies toward “instant experts,” but Afghanistan is simply not a place about which one “gets smart on” in anything less than months and years of intensive study.

I part ways with Dave in seeing the situation as not as hopeless, and not as thoroughly fractured, at least in some areas. But his fundamental points are sound: even really smart people, and I would include you as one of them, can easily miss the sorts of complexities that go into this intuitive understanding we need.

In fact, MAC, when I talk to people about this, I borrow your “mental model” framework, the one you developed for tribal engagement in Anbar. Ignoring the specifics of each culture, the idea of trying to figure out how to foster intuitive understanding of a culture is absolutely vital to being able to fight a counterinsurgency in it. The challenge is, a mental model of Afghanistan is frighteningly complex — I can sort of talk about mental models for a few provinces in the East. I know less about the Tajik and Hazara areas of the Hazarajat and Panjshir. I know less about the Pashtun and Baloch south. I know even less about Nuristan, though probably more than the average person. And I’ve never studied to any depth the North or West.

I’ve spent years on this. It is not easy, and Afghanistan has a knack for taking reasonable-sounding generalizations and producing so many exceptions they become meaningless. A friend recently told me, “the bewitching thing about Afghanistan is, you can know it like the back of your hand while you’re there, but be gone for two weeks and literally everything is different.”

I think what Dave is getting at is, the amount of time it takes to even begin to understand Afghanistan — and while I very much do appreciate your confidence in me, I have just started scratching the surface — is at horrible variance with the tendency in the military for people to jet back and forth from conflict to conflict and generally assume warfare must be the same because that made sense in Europe and that’s what we’re used to.

I hope it’s obvious that I don’t intend to insult your intelligence or diligence (I really don’t, even if it sounds like it). But I agree with Dave that your ideas miss a lot of the hyper-local subtleties that make operating in the country such an unbelievably complex place. But they represent a good start, and I feel optimistic in that they are a damned sight better than anything coming out of Bagram or DC these days.

That being said, I think one major thing we could do is to scrap OERs, get rid of the obsessive micromanagement from Bagram, and grant battalion and company level commanders greater autonomy in terms of operations. And also make getting off the FOB mandatory (in many areas, it’s not, since they care about coalition casualties instead of COIN).

Here’s another one: better doctrine. Even the COIN manual has really bad sections to it, places that misdefine and mischaracterize things. But it has good ideas, too, like the idea of looking at places in their own context, and getting off-base and spending extended periods of time with the people we’re meant to win over. A better country manual than what operators currently get would involve things like how to make friends with an Afghan (hint: hours at the chai table), and maybe the crucial fact that we should probably stop assuming that our own goodness is as intuitive to a rural villager as it is to an American on the internet.

This is a vastly larger discussion than what we can have here, but it’s a healthy thing that we’re talking about it here. Dave is one whose words and ideas should closely read; but you also are working from a different perspective and a different context — especially coming from inside the USMC, I think your perspective is a crucial one. You know better than I do how things get done, and I could never hope to argue most of my ideas without that kind of knowledge.

So let’s keep brainstorming — it’s not hopeless.


FDChief December 23, 2008 at 9:48 am

I guess my question would be: why would we want to devote this kind of generations-long committment to Afghanistan?

The British did because the northwest was the buffer between the jewel in their imperial crown and the Russians they assumed (probably with some correctness) wanted a piece of it.

An America without colonial ambitions in central Asia would seem to have an interest in Afghanistan only for its potential as a threat to the U.S. polity or to its interests in the region rather than an ally that it would need to restructure and influence in the way you are suggesting. The resultant policy would sem to be to destroy the threat and leave the Afghans to their own devices – certainly nothing in the history either of the U.S. or the region has featured a long-term American presence there. Did the events of 2001 signal a change in the internal politics of Afghanistan such that it would mandate the level of engagement you are suggesting here?

Reverend Doctor December 23, 2008 at 1:30 pm

FDChief, I don’t want put words in the other commentors’ mouths, but presumably one could talk about a generations-long commitment to Afghanistan that doesn’t necessarily include a generations-long presence of US military forces in Afghanistan.

Previous post:

Next post: