Gnomes on Tribal Militias

by Nathan Hamm on 8/2/2009 · 8 comments

Dan Green has a plan for standing up tribal militias in Afghanistan in the latest issue of Special Warfare and SWJ. And here I was getting my hopes up that the tribal militia fad had died out earlier this year.

Anyhow, Green points out that a tribal engagement strategy for Afghanistan should recognize that Afghan tribes are different from Iraqi tribes, so lessons cannot be directly transported. However, there’s a much more important point to recognize that Green flies right on past without noticing.

Many of Afghanistan’s tribes have been systematically undermined by the Taliban, Pakistani intelligence and local warlords; perverted by the free flow of arms; and weakened by mass migrations of people. Leaders in power may not be the traditional tribal leaders, and some tribes have been so weakened that no single individual leads them. That situation complicates leader selection, legitimacy and efficacy and leads to conflict within and between tribes.

So if Afghan tribes are so beat up, so weakened, so leaderless, and so lacking in legitimate, effective institutions that all that’s really left are the tribal identities, are there any tribes to actually engage? I know it sounds inconceivable, but could Afghans perhaps just be people?

I’ll not waste your or my time trying to make sense of his actual engagement strategy. It seems to be jirgas, some other stuff, leaders, dudes with guns, some other leaders, some things that are already being done, the creation of a “Principals Movement” (get it?!) or maybe Chegha Councils, and some printed codes of conduct to put up in the villages that Green earlier said are populated by illiterate tribals.

This stuff is hard, and there’s enormous tension between creating and strengthening local institutions and trying to strengthen a central government with a powerful executive. It’s clear that Green gets that, and bully on him for giving the creation of a tribal engagement and militia creation strategy a whirl. What everyone involved in this effort really needs to do, however, is ask whether or not we make things harder by talking about Afghanistan’s people and society the way we do. When we talk about tribes, we imply institutions or leaders with authority over those in the same kin group. Are we really seeing much of that in Afghanistan above the level of one to a few villages?

Josh recently compared David Kilcullen’s proposal for PRTs for Pakistan to the underwear gnomes’ plan to turn underwear into profit. The missing phase two between “collect underpants” and “profit” should be some kind of mechanism that turns underwear into profit. That execution’s a bear. In this particular case, Green does go into some initial specifics, but it’s clear from a lot of those specifics that a lot of misconceptions about the population went into making the plan.

Lest we eventually end up with An Underwear Gnome’s Guide to Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, we need to put more consideration into the step that gets us from the first to the third step. An important part of that is to turn the “TRIBES!” knob down from 11, so that we can get a better sense of what is going on in Afghan society, how it organizes and functions, and how to effectively engage it.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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David M August 3, 2009 at 9:38 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/03/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Fnord August 3, 2009 at 3:44 pm

From what I hear, there is a sense of urgency and momentuum going on right now?

Noah Tucker August 3, 2009 at 10:53 pm

But, but… Alexander the Great… and… the British and Soviets… if we just take a look at history…

So that’s the brilliant counter argument. Get ready.

(It does go up to 11 and this is an actual model of my skeleton. You just can’t argue).

Kung.Fu.Panda August 3, 2009 at 11:27 pm

How different are the PRT’s from the “Reconstruction” programs put into place in the former Confederate states after the Union victory? Both were/are combinations of well-meaning elites, career oriented military people, and “carpetbaggers” out to make a quick buck.

Without an existing functioning political structure to work with, “reconstruction” is a meaningless feel good phrase. The residents of Afghanistan have to put their country together on their own terms. Lecturing by State Department and USAID functionaries isn’t going to mean much to the locals.

el-belle August 3, 2009 at 11:40 pm

I’m starting to wonder if part of the problem is that those of us who started caring about Afghanistan only when the fight started here on the ground reports about how corrupt individual local leaders are (and hence how purchasabe), how there are tribes, and assume the “tribes” as an entire mass a) have leaders and b) are “flip-able” though bribes (this certainly seems to be what F. Christia’s problem is for example).

So here’s my really crazy way to bridge the gap that someone needs to point out the holes in for the sake of my sanity. Is there a way to build the ANA and ANP to draw strength from a tribal identity in and of itself, rather than trying to do so via a particular leader? There’s plenty of lit. in the ethnic conflict field (particularly D. Posner’s work on Africa) that suggests that ethnic divisions become politically salient only if there are institutions that incentivises one particular identity over another. So make it that when you join one of the national security services, you can identify as a particular identity. Your presence in the security force, and the success of the missions you undertake is then combined in some type of “tribal team score” that is publicly available, and translates into some type of monetary perk (he with the highest per capita recruitment gets roads first kind of deal).

Do i think this is going to make for a very good free and open society? absolutely not. It entrenches tribalism within the security forces, creates incentives that force people into the security forces against their will, is vulnerable to central government corruption to name only a few, but it seems better than the current system…

Noah August 4, 2009 at 8:19 am


You make an interesting suggestion, but one of the problems with using tribe all the time (and re-enforcing it with incentives etc) is that a) tribes are pretty localized–there are a whole bunch of Barakzais, but the Barakzais in Kandahar are more or less seperate from the ones in Helmand, and so on and so forth. Especially if you are creating a program like this for a national force (though I suppose you could do it a micro-level as well) you would end up having to focus on small localities (X tribe in Y district, apart from X tribe in Z district) and treating them as wholly local groups based on geography. Or, on the other hand, you would continue treating e.g. all the Barakzais from all over Afghanistan as a group that acts collectively, and you’re back to the original problem.

The other issue that I see is one you actually kind of bring up–ethnicity. Talking about tribes at all only puts Pashtuns in the mix. This fact seems to get lost in many of these discussions (or conveniently glossed by calling the Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks et al “tribes” which makes about as much sense as calling the French a tribe).

While it’s true that many of the most troubles areas in Afghanistan right now are Pashtun-heavy, as Dorronsoro warns in his recent CEIP piece the insurgency is expanding to non-Pashtun areas at an alarming rate, not to mention that familiar areas like Ghazni are only about 50% Pashtun. Solutions for areas like this that focus entirely on tribes either don’t map onto other groups or will fail to include them, creating new problems for each one you manage to solve.

Noah Tucker August 4, 2009 at 8:22 am

I’m sorry, it’s too early in the morning still. I put an A) with no B). It was supposed to go on the second paragraph. Ack!

BruceR August 4, 2009 at 8:54 am

Handing over weapons to militias, as shown with the ANAP experiment in Kandahar Province, doesn’t directly threaten the national-level government or its institutions. What it does in practice seem to always deeply undercut is any previous attempts to create district level governance in that area (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing) and any prior police efforts in that district.

There are still lots of places in Kandahar Province with “unpaid” “ANP.” Someone gave the local village/tribal leader and his friends some guns. They are accountable to no one and at best a nullity when it comes to improving security.

Now if your issue is there’s absolutely no functioning district governance, and no actual trained Afghan police or soldiers there or likely to arrive any time soon, and there’s Western soldiers that are combat-ineffective because they’re standing around looking for someone to work with, you could make the argument that this sort of thing could work. The remaining big issue then would be guiding reintegration of the force back into the “legit” ANP down the road. It remains, however, a fairly rare case, at least in South Afghanistan up until now.

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