The Not-Militias

by Joshua Foust on 7/15/2010 · 13 comments

Indeed, the largest tribal-recruitment experiment, a partnership between Army Col. Randy George’s troops in eastern Afghanistan and the large Shinwari tribe, ended this spring after the Nangarhar governor and the U.S. embassy objected that the alliance undermined the already-weak formal government. Not very auspicious.

So says Spencer Ackerman, using the same optimistic logic that says Bill Clinton pulled out of Somalia because of helicopter trouble.

Let’s be clear about one thing: the Shinwari deal fell apart because they used American money to butcher each other, not because some embassy officials worried about government legitimacy (though that is a real concern!). But that’s not the only bit Spencer spins out of control in that post. Manipulating tribes in Afghanistan hasn’t been trendy for the last year—hell, at the Columbia Journalism Review last January, I documented Spencer hyping the idea in 2008 (and included examples of the military trying it back to 2005). Similarly, Spencer’s assertion that Americans think the Ministry of the Interior was among the best is absolutely true—I’ve seen countless think tankers and soldiers say so. Thing is, 43% of Afghans report the MOI to be incredibly corrupt, and considering it controls the police—much as it will control this newest of not-militias—that’s not surprising.

So this isn’t some hip, new idea the military is toying with: this is an old problem, with a rich tradition of failure. We know this doesn’t work, because other attempts to do precisely this (even calling them “bridges” until we can train more actual forces). And Spencer knows this. He has reported it. But that doesn’t make it into his piece, where nothing seems to have happened before General McChrystal moved into Kabul.

Last issue: these not-militias suffer from the same fundamental problem as all the other actual militias: they rest on the assumption that, since U.S. fighting isn’t winning the war, maybe more Afghan fighting will. Afghanistan does not need more fighting, more militias, more untrained thugs (the good Colonel Spencer quotes says these people won’t be trained, but they’ll still get uniforms!), yet more layers of police forces, or more Army trainers. What Afghanistan needs is non-violent methods of resolving disputes, political structures and judicial systems that allow conflict to be resolved non-violently (like what Pashtunwali actually says!), and a system for enforcing the terms of those settlements. This casting about for a million different solutions to the same problems is worse that ineffective: it is counterproductive.

Update: Spencer re-ups his argument at his personal blog, and I must say I find that convincing. So he and I are in violent agreement: this new local not-militia idea thingy is a BAD IDEA. Period. And, because apparently this is not obviously clear (seriously, people, read the links!), my argument above is primarily over tone and interpretation. On the basics, we agree.

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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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Spencer Ackerman July 15, 2010 at 11:02 am

This is quite the masterpiece of laboring to pick nits in order to find substantive areas of disagreement.

Joshua Foust July 15, 2010 at 11:05 am

You should know by now that that’s what I do best. But read more closely and see all my arguments are over tone – I think we’re in violent agreement that these not-militias are a terrible idea.

fakhrunnissa July 15, 2010 at 11:44 am

I totally agree with you, this is exactly what I have been repeating for years, these “non-militias” are the best recipe for disaster.
Yes, Afghanistan does need non-violent methods of resolving disputes, but those methods cannot work when the country is at war and under foreign occupation

Andy July 15, 2010 at 12:55 pm


What is your alternative? What, in your view, is the best way to provide enduring security to the Afghan people?

Joshua Foust July 15, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Andy, I have an article coming out soon (I hope!) that discusses what I see as the best alternative, one I think had more likelihood of “bridging” and generating permanent change than this effort.

Madhu July 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm

That sounds like an interesting article. Looking forward to it.

reader July 15, 2010 at 6:39 pm

“Enduring security to the Afghan people”, that’s a pretty tall order, my friend. Which Afghans are you protecting, and from who?

What if there is no good option and this is a gigantic bumblef&ck that will just get worse with time due to the following factors 1) Western domestic politics including economics, 2) Major Western corruption, with some not too petty Afghan corruption, 3) the deep structural pathology of rural Afghanistan, 4) Indian-Pakistani neurosis vis-a-vis each other.

Andy July 16, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Yeah, it is a tall order, which is kind of my point. It’s easy to criticize, not so easy to come up with viable alternatives.

Madhu July 15, 2010 at 6:54 pm

4) Indian-Pakistani neurosis vis-a-vis each other.M/em>

reader, I respectfully disagree with this final point.

That very particular Western attitude regarding South Asia is one of my biggest pet peeves. It’s not all equal tit-for-tat, and thinking that is is has caused a lot of suffering because Western policy flows from that “it’s all equal, let’s just balance it out.” It’s profoundly flawed thinking and has led, and is leading, to serious trouble. It’s destabilizing the subcontinent, IMO.

(caveat: I’m just an internet ranter and of course, all of that could be wrong. I’m not a pundit. I don’t have to pretend to be right all the time 🙂 )

Madhu July 15, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Aargh, sorry, I forgot to close the italics tag or something.

reader July 15, 2010 at 7:06 pm


I don’t disagree with you, if you think the Pakistanis are far crazier than their Indian neighbors. Of course the US hasn’t helped the situation out, so maybe I should have same Pakistan neurosis, contributed to by US Cold War neurosis.

BTW, italics are fine, make for prettier copy.

Madhu July 15, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Italics do make for prettier copy.

I guess I have to say I don’t think Pakistanis et al are crazy (and I’m sure you don’t mean that either), but the state that’s been built up and the military-whatever complex that runs the joint is deeply dysfunctional.

Some BBC program I listened to on NPR yesterday interviewed a Pakistani businessman, I think it was, and he had a nice little interview where he talked about how in some areas the economy was improving and how Pakistan had to provide a better business climate than India to compete with its neighbor. So he brought up ease of opening a business and fewer regulations as an example.

I was fascinated by this. I’m a free marketer and a small government type, which I know is not the typical commenter around here (but how boring it would be if we all agreed!) and I wanted to know more about this side of Pakistan. You know, about the free marketers and the sturdy entrepreneurs and those people that are more interested in trade with India than anything else.

Hey, journalist types that are lurking: do these stories! Let’s hear more about this side of Pakistani society.

(I don’t want anyone to think I’m a bigot or that I’m against any particular type of people. I simply can’t stand the way in which our own elites seem not to be able to see, or speak, truths. Dunno.)


reader July 16, 2010 at 8:06 am


As a libertarian you certainly are in the minority. And I do agree that not enough news gets out about rational people. But people like the businessman you mentioned make for boring stories ;). You are right, as individuals Pakistanis aren’t all “crazy”, but as a society and political system? A better word than crazy, perhaps, would be neurotic in a conspiracy-prone and bellicose manner. I’m not even saying that all Pakistani conspiracies regarding Western undercover operations should be dismissed. But this ongoing hostility with what should be an obvious trading and political partner, India, isn’t exactly rational. It’s only rational if you are a highly-placed sociopath in the Pakistani military.
I do believe that societies can become “crazy” meaning they lose all sense of reality and engage in self-defeating forms of behavior . This is an idea many have written on, and there are numerous historical examples. Sometimes not everybody in that society is crazy, you always do have a few sociopaths around who can use the group insanity to their benefit; never let a crisis go to waste. In that regard, I think that Pakistan is sort of crazy, but they aren’t the only ones. Hope I explained myself.

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