Finally! Some Sense-Talking

by Joshua Foust on 9/5/2009 · 5 comments

Tribal militias in Afghanistan—namely what a bad idea they are—have been a pet peeve of mine for, oh, let’s go with years, but for some reason, you still find lots and lots of Very Serious People advocating their use (in fairness to Ron, arbakai make sense in his old AO—Paktika, Paktia, and Khost—but really only in his AO).

Which is why I was quite happy to see Kimberly Marten writing in the New York Times what a stupendously bad idea they really are:

Almost point for point, this plan repeats the terrible mistake that the British colonial army made in the Pashtun tribal areas in what would become Pakistan, in the late 19th century.

The British disrupted local Pashtun power balances by injecting outside money into tribal politics. British intelligence officers created charts of which sub-tribes and leaders (or maliks) had the most influence, and paid them extra money. The favored maliks in turn used these funds for patronage, paying off their supporters. Canny Pashtun factions second-guessed the British, creating security problems that they then “solved” to look more powerful. British payments to the new “official maliks” became hereditary. This system violated the tribal code of equality among all Pashtun men, but the official maliks accepted it with enthusiasm.

Hrm, that sounds awfully familiar, but who cares? It is far past time for a proper historical perspective to be brought to bear on the idea in public. Ms. Maretn could have (should have?) taken it a few steps further, and discussed their very poor record post-2001, but showing that for centuries these things have been bad ideas is nevertheless very nice to see, and very welcome.


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– 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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{ 5 comments }

omar September 5, 2009 at 10:55 am

Do you think its fair to say that the US is hobbled by a “worst of both worlds” situation in afghanistan: It has set up a puppet regime that is not really a puppet regime and that is not directly controlled (even if behind the scenes) in an efficient and effective manner. It gets all the flack associated with having a puppet regime, but not all the benefits? Just as a thought experiment, what if the US had set up an occupation authority that it really and truly controlled? OR a real afghan govt that has to take responsibility for successes and failures, but gets help from the US? Is it too late for option two even now? Would nasty and covert things would have to be done to get such a regime off on the right foot (OK, no one is going to tell if the things needed are that covert, but are ANY actions needed)? Who is in overall charge in Kabul from the US side? is there unity of command and a clear plan? if not, why not? Finally, why does there seem to be unity of command on the other side? Why can the taliban organize a coherent insurgency in the face of the world’s most powerful army? Could it be that the US doesnt even know who or what they are facing? In other words, could the emperor have no clothes? (another “worst of both worlds” situation: everyone in the region thinks the US is evil AND has eyes and tentacles everywhere so they get all the flack associated with being Dr. Evil, while they actually operate closer to the level of bureaucratic BS and CYA associated with decaying empires? just a thought). As you can see, I worry…

Joshua Foust September 5, 2009 at 11:02 am

Omar, I think that’s a really good possibility. I’m not certain about it, but it sounds interesting and plausible. I’m going to think on that some more.

anan September 5, 2009 at 11:20 am

“a real afghan govt that has to take responsibility for successes and failures, but gets help from the US?” Why is this not the case now, except for the fact that GIRoA revenues only cover 10% of expenses? I don’t agree that most Afghans see the GIRoA as foreign puppets. The NSD, ANA and ANP are not seen as foreign quislings.

“Finally, why does there seem to be unity of command on the other side? Why can the taliban organize a coherent insurgency in the face of the world’s most powerful army?” I don’t see unity of effort or a coherent insurgency within the Taliban. It seems pretty haphazard on their side too. Consider the possibility that everyone is chaotic and incompetent.

omar September 5, 2009 at 2:50 pm

anan, I dont know how many afghans see the regime as a puppet regime, but most of the outside world does seem to think so. What I am trying to pin down is “what is it that prevents afghans as well as foreigners from treating this as an afghan govt problem that the US can help with, rather than a US problem that the afghan govt is just occasionally mucking up”?? The US could pay the afghan budget for the next 20 years, but either the US runs the govt, or they dont and the govt takes credit and blame for what it does. Staying vaguely in between these two options may be a “worst of both worlds” scenario..
Its expected that war is chaotic, but that is pretty much par for the course in ANY war. I think what I meant was that we (outsiders, not insiders) have an image of “superpower America” but could it be that its not even par for the course? That the effort is much more incompetent and disorganized than most observers assume? I guess I am actually looking for reassurance that someone up there knows what they are doing and isnt just putting one step in front of the other like a recovering alcoholic!

anan September 5, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Omar, Afghanistan’s challenges are the GIRoA’s. When the ANP or ANA perform poorly, the responsibility is the GIRoA. Some American fools are conflating the GIRoA with America, but that is their stupidity.

Omar, some American idiots saw the GoI as an American puppet. But now they know better. It will be the same way with these American fools regarding Afghanistan. We need to deal with the reality on the ground, not the perception of naive misinformed ignorant Americans.

I don’t agree that foreigners think of America as some behemoth superpower. Not in China, India, Japan, or other large self confident rising powers. America is not seen as that important in most of the world . . . much though it hurts the egos of many Americans to hear it. The American business community gets this in its bones. America isn’t even the largest source of revenues for many American companies any more.

You are right, however, that the US should give money directly to GIRoA ministries, provincial or district governments; and hold them accountable for how they spend it. Any Afghan elected leader or government employee who complains about Afghanistan should be asked “what are you and your colleagues doing about it?” Afghans who complain about corruption should be told “what are you as an Afghan citizen doing about it?” Afghans are accountable for their own situation . . . even though they get American help.

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