To arm the Afghan tribes or not?

One of the presumed parts of Obama’s Afghan strategy will be to look at ways of coopting the country’s various tribes, much like General David Petraeus did it in Iraq. The idea has sparked off a torrent of criticism in the foreign policy community.

One of the smartest young Democratic things, Brookings security expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, wrote to Obama that his administration should cultivate Afghan tribal leaders, but it would be a mistake to expect them to play a military role in the counterinsurgency. Michael Williams, the US-born British academic spoke for many when he called the idea “a very high-risk strategy that cuts directly against counter-insurgency theory and will most likely be seen in hindsight as a serious mistake.”

Those with longer memories talk about the failure of the Red Army to work with the Afghan tribes. The Russians spent large sums of money arming and supporting tribes in their own “Vietnamization” strategy. So much money was, in fact, spent that Kandahar in the south of the country, saw an in-flux of clothes from Pakistan and shoes from France, were the norm. For a short period it worked.  The defection of one commander, Esmat Muslim, to the Afghan government’s side was said to be a blow for the mujahedeen, who suddenly found all their routes to Pakistan had been compromised. But once the Soviets left the in-fighting began. Even Esmat Muslim was not able to manage all the problems in Kandahar.

Those who reject any comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan, like author  Alex Strick van Linschoten highlight key differences in the two countries. The Taliban movement, even if it contains foreign fighters, has deep roots in Afghan society. Many Taliban commanders grew up through the 1980s jihad against the Soviets. In this, the Taliban are different than Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who were run by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and seen by many tribesmen as foreigners.

A key factor in Iraq was also the cruelty of Al Qaeda, which proved too much for the Anbari tribesmen. Though the Taliban have displayed similar cruelty -– for example in the recent Maiwand atrocities where many Laghmani civilians were killed –- but the Afghan government has not been able to spread information about such acts. The final problem in transferring solutions from Iraq to Afghanistan is the nature of the Taliban’s recent success. Since 2005, the Taliban has bandied together with a strong network of drug barons, while forcing many tribesmen to be supportive or, at the very least, remain passive towards the insurgency. Reaching out to these groups is unlikely to succeed, it is claimed, as they benefit from the status quo and the U.S cannot offer a better, long-term alternative.

But in Rageh Omar’s latest documentary for Al Jazeera — Pakistan’s War: On The Frontline – another side emerges. In Bajaur province – where Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, is believed to be hiding – the documentary shows how the Pakistani army has managed to do exactly what the U.S is now contemplating. In their fight against the Pakistani Taliban the army has armed a particular tribe, which is now charged with keeping the peace in a number of cities. So far, it has proven successful and is being emulated in other places.

Yesterday, Omar was careful not to say the strategy could necessarily work elsewhere. But he was emphatic that it seemed to work in Bajaur; and that he knew of several examples where tribesmen had asked to be armed or had risen up against the Pakistani Taliban spontaneously.

So far, both the strategy of working with the tribes -– and the backlash against the idea –- seemed to be based on speculation and hunches rather than the kind of hard empirical research the question merits. Before any steps are taken let us hope the Obama administration commissions research on the tribes, and comparative experiences. For this is exactly the kind of complex policy dilemma that requires an evidence-based approach rather than the gut-based policy-making of the Bush administration or the arm-chair soldiering so beloved by left and right alike in Washington, DC.