The Militia Mistake:
Expecting tribal militias to help solve Afghanistan's problems is a dangerous error by America
Monday 29 December 2008
The US has decided to arm local militias to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is a very high-risk strategy, that cuts directly against counter-insurgency theory and will most likely be seen in hindsight as a serious mistake.
The US plan draws on the supposed success of the strategy in Iraq where the Sunni awakening played into American hands. "The Awakening" occurred when Sunni insurgents, upset at the scale of the bloodshed being wrought by al-Qaida in Iraq, turned on the foreign insurgent forces. The US seized this opportunity, choosing to arm, train and work with the very fighters who only days before had been trying to kill US troops. It was a risky strategy, and one that many now feel paid good dividends.
Many others, however, are critical of the strategy. Arming militias in Iraq essentially created a third military force in the country. The Iraqi National Police and Iraqi National Army under the control of the government are supposed to be the principal security instruments. But with the creation of the militias a parallel security structure emerged. One that could eventually be used to challenge the Iraqi government.
Thus, it remains to be seen how successful the militia strategy in Iraq has really been. If they disarm and are brought into the mainstream security force, then the project may be called a success. If not, the situation could turn very grim. At the moment there are only plans to integrate a few hundred of the several thousand militia forces into the mainstream security forces.
Afghanistan is not Iraq. The Americans say they are aware of this, but they seem to have short memories. Answering a critique of the proposed plan to start arming groups in Wardak province early in 2009, American officials said they were confident they could keep the militias under control. Are these by any chance the same officials who thought they controlled where Pakistani intelligence funneled CIA money during the jihad against the Soviets? Are these the same officials who thought Washington controlled the mujahideen who fought the Russians, only to then see many of them join the ranks of al-Qaida? Are these the same officials who thought because they doled out large sums of money in 2001-2002 to Afghan warlords that they had somehow bought their loyalty in perpetuity?
The idea of arming militia groups to support the creation of a centralised government predicated on the rule of law is foolish. It runs against the most basic tenet of counter-insurgency to place all control of the use of force under the government. Arming loose militia groups is not the same as training the army or equipping the police. It is because these two enterprises have failed that the Americans are now leaning towards this less than optimal third option.
Proponents of arming militia groups will point to Afghanistan's tribal nature and the fact that power has never before been centralised. They thus argue that the militias are the best way forward. But this is an incredibly simplistic view of Afghan culture, that undercuts the desires of ordinary Afghans sick and tired of warlordism and violence. Part of the reason corruption is so rampant today is because the US chose to work with warlords and then placed them back in power after the Taliban was ousted. Now it wants to add to their arms stockpiles and strengthen more forces, that may one day be used against the Afghan central government and its international allies.
Afghanistan is a country of shifting loyalties. Afghans know what side their bread is buttered on. To assume that the US and the Afghan government will be able to control these militia groups is irresponsible. Control is a word rarely successfully applied to Afghans. For the time being the strategy may pay off, but in the long-run it is an extremely dangerous proposition. If you have doubts, just ask a fella named Osama bin Laden. The US thought it could control him once upon a time as well. The incoming Obama administration would do well to think long and hard about this rather lacklustre plan.