The Downside to Bribing/Co-opting/Reconciling Whomever

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by Joshua Foust on 1/24/2010 · 7 comments

Hamid Karzai sez:

After giving up on winning victory in Afghanistan by military means, the international community is resorting to the centuries-old method of buying its way out.

In London this week, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, will launch a British and American-backed plan for “reintegration” of the Taliban and call for international funding to offer jobs and bribes to bring insurgents in from the cold.

Well okay, so that’s really The Times saying that, but it’s nevertheless a widespread belief… including within the Karzai administration. The thing is… there is a long history of offering the Taliban jobs and bribes to join the government, at least since mid-2002 or so. And talking about negotiations in this way ignores two critical pieces of data:

  • Most of the insurgents who would be willing to join the government have already done so; and,
  • There is very little evidence that a lack of bribes or jobs is a primary reason why people choose to fight for the insurgents.

So understanding that bribes and job offers (when they even exist—far too many fighters have been offered jobs and bribes in return for laying down their weapons only to see the Kabul government renege) probably don’t address the problem, and oh yeah if there is even a reconciliation process in a given area, I’m wondering… what’s the point anymore?

These sorts of offers have all sorts of downsides the people advocating them don’t seem to have considered very carefully. The much-vaunted “Sons of Iraq,” which for some reason the military thinks is an appropriate analog for Afghan power politics and security, have caused a host of problems for the Iraqi government long after we’ve declared they won the war for America. Within Afghanistan itself, there is the obvious problem of the government itself not being a reliable negotiating partner; but moreover, you run into issues of warlordism (as in Kunduz) or elsewhere just of an attitude of impunity and lawlessness. The government and Coalition are years away from being able to properly integrate the remaining militant leaders into society; the only people they can probably tempt away are the super-low level guys who won’t dramatically affect the balance of power or safety to any great extent anyway.

Captain Cat, a very readable blog by an NGO worker of some sort in Gardez, has been dealing with this in her part of Afghanistan.

On Wednesday I flew to Urgun in East Paktika to meet with some people at the US military base in order to try to get the other side of the story about this marauding Afghan commander employed by Special Operations Forces (SOF), who is apparently striking terror into the hearts of the local population down in one of Paktika’s southern districts.

Over lunch in the FOB’s canteen, I learnt not only that this Afghan commander has a bad reputation even on the FOB, but just how dysfunctional things are. I managed to snatch a few words with the busy but receptive battalion commander and impressed upon him the various stories I’d heard about this Afghan commander barging into people’s homes in the dead of night.

On Thursday afternoon I met with a reconciled former Hezb-I Islami commander. Three weeks ago this man’s house was raided by SOF, during which they dug up the floors of his home. “They came first at night and again the next day, and destroyed my home with this digging. They found nothing and then apologized. I said to them “you have insulted me, I cannot forgive you. If you continue to do this, you are pushing me to climb the mountains” (a Pashtu turn of phrase for joining the opposition).

He went on, “The ANSF can do these searches better, they know the customs and traditions. Wherever the Special Forces go, not only do the communities hate them, but they also come under pressure from AGEs once they leave the area. They show no respect to the elders or to our religious scholars. Last year they bombarded a house killing everyone inside, as well as 70 sheep”.

“They wanted to live in communities to work with the arbakai (tribal police) but the elders rejected this. Then they said ‘ok’. They began forcing elders to provide them with arbakai so they could train them. The elders refused. The Special Forces told them “if you don’t provide us with arbakai, you are supporting the insurgents”.

Obviously, read the whole thing. She has a lot to say about the severe challenges posed by an arrogant, unaccountable Special Forces group operating without coordination with the Big Army units responsible for the area. I’ve experienced this as well: when I was in Khost last year, the Army was dealing with violent protests in the aftermath of a SOF raid on a housing compound in Khost City. The SOF liaison officer said some very robotic things about “informing the governor” after the raid (note the timing, and the governor claimed they never did), and the Army guys were scratching their heads about how to handle the consequences of their own guys doing something (raiding houses at night, killing the men who try to run off and arresting the rest) they had promised to stop doing. It was a real mess, but the SOF guys had no accountability with regards to their operations’ consequences—for the most part, they had already moved on to other areas and other bad guys anyway.

I don’t want to limit this discussion only to Loya Paktia—while that happens to be the area under discussion here, every single Coalition country has been busy alienating and brutalizing communities by their inconsiderate actions. Yes, this is a war, and war sucks, and war means innocent people suffer… but recognizing that, and behaving as if you don’t care that it happens, are two totally separate issues. It is one thing to behave deferentially and to work through local institutions—many Big Army unit commanders try very earnestly to do just that (they often need help, but that’s hardly their fault). Many special forces units, however, do not… and besides swaggering around the FOB showing off their beards (which is annoying anyway), they often undo whatever goodwill or progress the Big Army units have been able to do.

Now, this shouldn’t be limited to all SOF units. There are many that are quiet, effective, and invisible—which is how they should be on hit missions. There are also many that take their job of Security Force Assistance (formerly known as FID) very seriously, and are effective. But there are enough SOF units, in enough parts of the country, behaving badly enough, that they have actually contributed to the degradation of the war’s progress.

Both issues—the bribing of warlords, and the rampaging Special Forces—are interrelated, not least of which because the SOF guys are the ones out in front trying to force reconciliation or training local forces. In far too many places, they are part of the problem, not the solution—which should give anyone advocating them, whether more special forces or a sped-up reconciliation process, a great deal of pause.

Photo: U.S. Army paratroopers prepare to load into a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during an air assault mission to detain a known militant in the Bermel district of Paktika province, Afghanistan, Oct. 13, 2009.

Previously: Dispatches from FOBistan: Letting the Message Drive the Operation.

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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 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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Joshua Foust January 24, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Forgot to add something in the post, and it’s too annoying to rewrite it: the idea of “integrating” might be assuming too much, namely that there is a distinction between “society” and “Taliban.” In some (many?) places, it is entirely reasonable to consider “society” and “Taliban” to be analogous or even interchangeable concepts, in which case the idea of “reconciliation” is not only a bit inappropriate, it might be actually menacing to existing social structures.

There’s obviously more to ponder in that concept, but I think it’s important to keep in mind even while we look above at how unreliable the whole process has been and continues to be. It is probably a bad idea in the first place.

Dafydd January 25, 2010 at 5:45 am

One of the great dangers of bribing insurgents to swap sides is it opens up the ANSF to infiltration.

Is nobody worrying about that?

Joshua Foust January 25, 2010 at 8:04 am

Dunno about inside the decision-making apparatus. But I worry about it deeply. The Camp Chapman bomber was basically an infiltrator, and he was working with people who *should* have known better. So who knows.

Chris January 25, 2010 at 10:33 am

Josh, I gotta disagree with one of your statements, and it migh be that you are talking Strategic level guys and I’m talking Tactical, but the lack of jobs is big factor in the insurgency at the lowest levels. Many Afghan families have their small farm plots that, with a good harvest, will about feed their family. If the harvest goes bad, they go hungry. A lot of families will send one of the men to Pakistan or Iran to work and send back money. From what I’ve heard, an Afghan can make 4-5 times more in Iran or Pakistan than he can in Afghanistan, and that’s assuming he can find a job in Afghanistan in the first place. Now, along comes the local Taliban commander and tells the guy that, instead of going to another country where he’ll be grossly mistreated, he will pay him $200 a month (twice what the ANP make) and he can work from home. He gets a cell phone, maybe a motorcycle, and an AK, and every now and then, the commander calls him up and they zip off to ambush ANSF or ISAF units moving through the area. This is why many of the “ambush’s” are essentially harrassing fire from 300-800 meters away. They empty a magazine in the general direction of the convoy, maybe launch a volley of RPG’s the really ge their attention, then they leave. The ISAF force proceeds to either high tail it out of there, a clear IO win for the insurgents, or they proceed to lay waste to the area that they think the fire came from with their heavy machine guns. Of course, if they damage property or kill a civilian (or someone the Tinsurgents can claim was a civlilian), even returning fire like that is a big IO win for the insurgents.
Anyhow, my point is that a lot of civilians work for the insurgents because there is actually very little risk (when was the last time an ISAF unit really un-assed their trucks and found the guys responsible), they get to live at home with their family, and frankly, the pay is good.
That’s my .02

On the note of infiltrators, what about “terps”? I’ve had some interesting discussions with young Afghan teens that have suprisingly good English and some rather interesting views of ISAF. After a little while though, they say, “How can I become an interpreter for the Americans?” Maybe they just want a good paying job, but maybe in the past 8 years, the insurgents have realized the value of teaching some promising young men English. Get one into a job with ISAF and you’ve got some pretty good intel!

Joshua Foust January 25, 2010 at 10:37 am

That’s a fair comment. I’d respond with this: if a local Afghan could choose to work for a community figure with ties to the insurgeny, or for the Coalition at an equivalent rate of pay (often ISAF tries to either match or just barely edge out Taliban wages), which is he most likely to choose?

That obviously depends a great deal on the individual. The point I’m making here is that viewing even the low-level insurgents only in terms of money probably misses a great deal of the sociological backstory behind why they choose a given insurgent group over other means as an income source.

Dafydd January 26, 2010 at 5:42 am

Probably the most important factor in the decision you highlight (Taliban or ISAF as an employer) is who you think will win, rather than who pays the most. Let’s face it, being an ISAF employee and facing a Sharia court after a Taliban victory is going to be bad news for your whole family. Likewise the prospect of a trip to Guantanamo if you join the Taliban and they lose will strike fear into the hearts of many Afghans.

My understanding of how extended families work would indicate that most would take the pragmatic route and try to get a foot in both camps. If you have seven sons, One Taliban, one ISAF terp, one studying at the mosque, four on the farm seems like a good strategy. If not sons, then cousins/nephews.

reader January 30, 2010 at 1:39 pm


The problem that you point out is basically a deep structural one within the US military. I’m not calling SF dudes troglodytes, but most didn’t join to develop a deeper appreciation of Rumi. So you will always have to reign in those personal/behavioral aspects (whether inborn or cultivated) that come with being a member of a very small, very militaristic culture. People can spin it all they like, but a warrior ethos is still a warrior ethos. This issue of channeling aggressiveness can also be found in law enforcement and will never eradicate. The only way to stop it would be to set up a psychological litmus test that discourages alpha males from joining the SF. Of course then you end up with a pretty poor SF. One of those ugly facts of life. Call it the sheepdog dilemma, and I think the presence of lots of “contractors”, to use the Orwellian term, exacerbates the problem. Wiser heads than myself have probably gone over and over about this, so I won’t belabor the point. You must build the house with the tools you are given, correct? And listening to McChrystal talk about the populace is kind of sweet and quaint.

As far as bribes go, well it proves nobody has learned anything. Oh there is lot’s of talk about doing away with the warlords. But it seems that the focus is on individuals, not on the system as a whole. This time, I’m sure we’ve learned the error of our ways and will bribe far more effectively. I’m just wandering how this realpolitik fits into our earlier high-flying claims to remake the country? Where do all those little girls who want to go to school fit into this? At least you and others have made the point that the Shinwaris aren’t paragons of enlightenment vis-a-vis gender. And as far as Afghan democracy goes, it will be interesting to see how many times that problematic phrase shows up in future speeches to the American electorate. Actually would make for a good drinking game, but I suspect unless you use old clips everybody might remain sober. And finally, if throwing money at a problem helps how come I haven’t heard of a rash of recently born Pakistani babies named Dick Lugar or John Kerry?

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