Arm Afghan Tribes, Experts Say

A number of experts now say the U.S. should abandon its “top down” strategy of building an Afghan national army. Better is a "bottom up" approach that arms and pays local tribes to fight the Taliban alongside U.S. special forces.

A number of experts think the U.S. should abandon its “top down” strategy of building an Afghan national army and should switch to arming and paying local tribes to fight the Taliban.

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, appearing Thursday at a Capitol Hill conference sponsored by RAND, said he closely examined former Soviet counterinsurgencies in Poland and the Ukraine. In both cases, the Soviets successfully levered small, locally recruited militia forces to successfully battle numerically superior anti-regime insurgents. He warned of the perils of trying to police xenophobic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pahstuns with an Afghan national army. A better approach is to create and support local militia groups built from country’s various tribes.

RAND’s Arturo Munoz, a former CIA officer stationed in Afghanistan, also backed a “bottom up” counterinsurgency approach that pays and arms the tribes and enlists them to fight alongside U.S. and NATO troops. The Taliban shadow government at the village level is expanding, he warned, the tribes themselves are best suited to beat back that expansion, not foreign troops. The tribes must see tangible benefits, though, in other words, they want money. “If we can’t get the Afghan tribes to fight on our side we shouldn’t be there.”

Brian Jenkins, a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, now a RAND analyst, is also a big fan of arming the tribes. Ultimately, a large deployment of foreign troops in Afghanistan will be counterproductive and is not sustainable; better to pay and build-up tribal irregular forces, he said. “We can learn from our experience in Vietnam where 2,000 Americans (Special Forces and CIA paramilitary) recruited and managed a force of 50,000 fighters, drawn mostly from the mountain tribes, many of whom were former Viet Cong guerrillas. They were very effective because they were fighting on their own turf.”

Of course no Washington conference on Afghanistan is complete without a debate on the competing merits of the counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism approach.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq and Bush administration point-man on various international crises, Zalmay Khalilzad, threw his weight behind Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy and for a much expanded U.S. troop presence there.

The U.S. must use its considerable political and financial muscle to leverage the government of Hamid Karzai, if, as expected, he wins the runoff election, to clean up its corrupt act and transform the state from a predatory body to one that actually addresses people’s needs. Any continuation of international aid and assistance must be tied to performance benchmarks from the Kabul government.

Khalilzad served in Afghanistan alongside former Gen. David Barno, and the team has ever since been held up as the model of civil-military “unity of effort.” He acknowledged that the Bush administration’s early policy of keeping the Afghan security forces small, no more than 50,000 troops, has hindered efforts there ever since. Originally dead set against the whole nation building idea, the former administration didn’t want to be saddled with the cost of maintaining a larger force.

Events in Iraq showed the importance of building up strong indigenous security forces and the same must be done in Afghanistan, he said. That will take time and money, a lot more money than is currently being spent. “As long as the Afghan state can’t pay their soldiers as much as the Taliban can pay its soldiers then they will not win.”

Until Afghan troops in sufficient numbers can be recruited and trained, U.S. and NATO forces must provide security to key population centers. Khalilzad suggested using the substantial “purchasing power” of the U.S. military to put more people to work and help build small businesses. Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan must also be eliminated, he said.

One of the more convincing arguments in favor of an escalation in Afghanistan came from Former Ambassador James Dobbins, who was present at the creation of the Afghan state in 2001. He warned that a reduction in U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan would not result in a victorious Taliban march into Kabul. Rather, the result would be an escalated civil war, akin to that fought in the post-Soviet period in the 1990s.

“We already know what that looks like,” Dobbins said. The largely Tajik Northern Alliance and the Uzbeks would rearm in the face of Pashtun strength and Kabul would again become a battlefield as competing factions, outfitted with arsenals of heavy weapons sat in storage around the country, battled for power.

An expanded civil war in Afghanistan would produce millions of refugees, widespread criminality and a lawless environment favorable to extremist groups. It wouldn’t matter whether the Taliban invited Al Qaeda back, he said, they wouldn’t have choice, in an Afghanistan tearing itself apart in civil war, Al Qaeda could go where they want.

AEI’s Fred Kagan played his well established role extolling the virtues of escalation and angrily denounced those who question McChrystal’s assessment and the additional troops he reportedly wants.

He apparently missed the irony when he said nobody in the Obama administration has the right to question McChrystal’s force level rational since he’s the commander on the ground, even as he recounted his own hand in producing plans in 2006 for an escalation in Iraq that eventually became the surge, a plan he deemed necessary because the commanders on the ground in Iraq at the time had it all wrong.