A Tribal Strategy for Afghanistan

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 10:04 PM EST

A couple of weeks ago Fred Kaplan speculated that President Obama might be planning to pursue a tribe-centered counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan rather than one centered on the central government in Kabul.  Today, after reading Dexter Filkins' piece in the New York Times that describes an effort already underway to co-opt local militias, Kaplan doubles down:

The interest, even excitement, in this development stems from two sources. First, it is reminiscent of the Anbar Awakening in 2006-07, when Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq formed alliances with U.S. forces — whom the Sunnis had been shooting just months earlier — to beat back the bigger threat of al-Qaida.

Second, it has drawn high-level attention to a 45-page paper by Army Maj. Jim Gant, the former team leader of a special-ops detachment stationed in Konar province. The paper, called "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan," recounts his experiences with organizing "tribal engagement teams" to help local fighters beat back the Taliban — and it spells out a plan to replicate these teams across the country.

....There are signs that Obama has been mulling over something like Gant's strategy. At one of the seven meetings Obama has held with his national security advisers (the ninth, and perhaps final, session takes place tonight), he asked for a breakdown of which Afghan provinces could provide their own defense, which need our help, and to what degree.

....Obama is likely to announce his decision — on a strategy and on how many, if any, more troops it will require — soon after Thanksgiving. A key question to ask, in examining this mix, is how prominently it features the tribes.

I first heard about Gant's paper via email from Wagster, who wrote about it in a post earlier this month:

Gant goes on to describe how he developed close relations with the village chieftain, whom he affectionately called "Sitting Bull." He was audacious enough to arm and supply the village's fighters, probably breaking many rules but winning their trust and allegiance and gaining access to valuable intelligence. It is this approach — a tribal engagement strategy — that he advocates for the country as a whole. He calls the fighters Arbakai, a tribal militia that would protect their neighbors from Taliban intimidation. These could be the Afghani equivalent of the “Sons of Iraq,” grass-roots warriors defending their own tribal interests, with the U.S. as their ally — not imposing a central government on them, but giving them what they want: security, their tribal traditions, and the right to be let alone.

I will go farther than Gant does. Instead of envisioning an end state where Kabul dominates all of Afghanistan, we should be striving for Kabul + Largely Autonomous Tribe Lands. The Karzai government would control the heavily populated areas in the east of the country, and as best they could the border areas with Pakistan. They would have nominal sovereignty over their country, as previous Afghani governments have. The Pashtuns would be empowered to defend themselves from the Taliban, but they would largely be free of Kabul too. Provincial government structures would have to be developed in order to resolve inter-tribal conflicts and law-and-order issues, but largely, governance would come from nearby.

Kaplan says flatly that if Obama's eventual strategy doesn't look a lot like Gant's, "it is almost certain to fail."  And even if it does, it might still fail.  But at this point, the tribes are pretty much our only hope.

I am, as I've said before, skeptical about deepening our engagement in Afghanistan at all.  But the absolute minimum requirement is a strategy that's notably different from the one we've been following for the past seven years, a strategy that's done little except pour ever more troops into the country while simultaneously losing ever more control.  This might be the one. We'll probably know in another week or so.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.