A False Awakening

Afghanistan is not Iraq. Cutting deals with “the tribes” will backfire.

Although perhaps with different objectives in mind, analysts as different as Fareed Zakaria and special forces Major Jim Gant have recently argued that the time has come to make deals with the "tribes" in Afghanistan. However, two relatively recent attempts to make such deals further illustrate the almost certain strategic failure of that approach there. During October 2006, an agreement was reached between NATO and Taliban forces requiring both sides to withdraw and cease operations within a designated area of Musa Qala district in Helmand province. However, the Taliban soon complained that NATO had launched air strikes within the exclusion zone and proceeded to attack and occupy the district town until expelled by NATO forces almost a full year later. The re-occupation of the district town by British forces was followed during December 2007 by the public defection of a local chief-also variously described as a "tribal leader," "former Mujahidin guerrilla" or "former Taliban commander"-who had also served as a former provincial governor for the Taliban in the 1990s. That defection was the result of prolonged and secret negotiations between a British political officer and the local chief, Mullah Abdul Salaam, with the expectation that he would bring "thousands of armed tribesmen…to fight alongside British forces" with him. Although he never delivered on that promise, Mullah Abdul Salaam was appointed governor of the district one month later. However, his relationship with the British quickly soured, and by June 2008 mutual accusations of incompetence or lack of political will were being publicly exchanged. Mullah Abdul Salaam accused the Afghan government and international community of lying and not doing anything to fulfill promises to build a large mosque and bridges in the district. The British charged him with "running a personal militia of ex-Taliban thugs, while . . . feather[ing] his own nest . . . [and] doing nothing to support reconstruction." Despite an increased NATO military presence, the security situation deteriorated to the point that even as the mullah was running as a candidate in the most recent disputed presidential election-under the slogan "You want to understand the Taliban? Talk to me, I used to be one"-his district was classified by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior as "high risk" or "militant control[led]." Clearly, the "deal" made with this local leader almost two years ago has not stabilized Musa Qala district.