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.
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.