As outsiders we are for the most part unable to penetrate the complex layers of power and society in Afghanistan. Our reality is filtered through our various interlocutors, translators, advisors, officials, tribal leaders, etc. and it often feels like I am stumbling around in the dark feeling the walls and trying to move forwards. Assuming that this is a general handicap of Western interventionists in the country, and not a weakness particular to myself, it presents the single largest obstacle to having a positive impact and undermining the long-term drivers of the insurgency.
Using a similar logic, COIN doctrine recognizes that the counterinsurgent requires effective local partnerships in order to operate effectively and to eventually take over the fight entirely as a tipping point towards sustainable stability (I hesitate to speak of “victory”) is reached. Uniformed government forces share some of our handicaps above, especially in areas that are outside their security influence to a significant degree. The efforts of international and national counterinsurgents in such areas start to resemble Xerxes’ futile punishment of the Hellespont waters.
One potential way of overcoming these limitations is to empower locals so that they become responsible counterinsurgents themselves. I would argue that throughout history this has been the only way for foreign counterinsurgents to be truly effective. In some cases it will be enough to ally with local elites and build up their means to police the state, but in areas that are particularly embittered, more local solutions are likely required. The example everyone knows is that of the Anbar Awakening; useful, but as anything in COIN it was a solution peculiar to the conditions on the ground in Western Iraq.
There have been several start-stop efforts at developing local counterinsurgent capabilities in Afghanistan ranging from barely-legal militias (I suppose I am being too kind to call them that) to government-sanctioned (unofficially) uniformed forces and programmes of sticks and carrots designed to win the support of existing local forces as well as increasing their capabilities.
Josh has already written with justified concern about such efforts, and was on the mark when he agreed with the TLO (Tribal Liaison Office – Afghan NGO) that the creation and use of such forces only makes sense in areas where they have a history of being effective. From across the border in Tajikistan Christian has pooped on the latest effort which COMISAF seems to believe firmly in – the Community Defence Initiative. Perhaps I am being painfully naive, but I am not going to be as quick to dismiss these ideas out of hand. Yes, the development of local armed groups as counterinsurgents is a course fraught with dangers and one that can backfire painfully, but having seen the AP3 in Wardak up close and now that I am learning more about the implementation of the CDI in my neck of the woods I am not altogether despondent (how’s that for hedging one’s bets!).
I am therefore going to go on the record saying that I think CDI can have merit with its alliance-building with existing forces (rather than the arming of). The risks remain however, that our SOF and their CAS capabilities will be used as levers in local power struggles rather than to target true insurgents, and that our proxies will turn out to be no better than the enemy, as Thomas Ruttig told the Guardian:
“It is not enough to talk to a few tribal elders and decide that you trust them,” Ruttig said. “No matter how well-trained and culturally aware the special forces are they will never be able to get to know enough about a local area to trust the people they are dealing with.”
Also, I have yet to see how this SOF-led programme is going to be integrated into Afghan military command and control structures, or what the long-term playbook is going to look like. I suppose for someone who thinks this can be a way forward in parts of the country I sound quite negative, but given the ridiculous spin in the NYT and WaPo recently about the “spontaneous emergence” of these anti-taliban militias I feel the need to stand apart.