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.

A similar case can be found closer to Kabul in Wardak province. During January and February 2009, reports circulated about a "plan to . . . form local tribal groups" into a pilot "Afghan Public Protection Force" (APPF). The members of that force were to be selected by tribal chiefs and local religious leaders-mirroring a historically-rooted policy initiated by the British and continued in the frontier region by the Islamabad Government to this day. Although the Afghan Minister of Interior argued that the APPF should be viewed as "community-based security" forces rather than a collection of "tribal militias . . . because they will be trained, uniformed, [and] paid by the government," at least one anonymous Western official in Kabul has argued that "you can't make something different…just by saying it's not the same thing." By April, a significant number of Tajiks and Hazaras, plus a much smaller number of Pashtuns, were successfully enrolled in the Wardak APPF. Nonetheless, elders within a core "Pashtun enclave" of five large villages refused to select any recruits-despite repeated meetings with American military officers over several months. That foreshadowed a larger problem-by October 2009, local recruitment had deteriorated to the point that the Afghan officer in charge of training reported that "there hasn't been a single recruit for more than a month and a half . . . [even though] more than a hundred people were rounded up [emphasis added] and sent to the training center, but the commander in charge told me they ran away." Although the Taliban is not believed to be a major force in the largely Hazara Behsud region-the rest of the province is currently classified as "high risk."

Given these prior interactions we've had with "the tribes," there are at least three fundamental obstacles to making deals with them: how to determine precisely with whom, in which localities, effective deals-or multiple deals-can be made; ensuring that any such deals will not alienate more people than it brings to our side; and, most importantly, the likelihood that no possible combination of local leaders exists that together could provide a reasonably effective government in Kabul. Many analysts advocating a deal with the tribes ignore those problems and choose instead to focus primarily on Pashtuns that, as a broadly defined ethnic group, constitute forty-two percent of Afghanistan's population; fifteen percent of Pakistan's population; and the majority population in that part of the AfPak region where most al-Qaeda, Taliban and other insurgent group safe-havens are located.

Unfortunately, although sharing an essentially paternalistic culture, the Pashtuns do not constitute a cohesive political entity. Instead, fundamental differences exist among the approximately three hundred fifty Pashtun tribes that are further subdivided into a multiplicity of sub-tribes, clans, and smaller extended family groups-placing the Pashtuns among the most highly fragmented ethnic groups in the world. There are differences between majority Sunni and minority Shia'a tribes and clans, and the more autonomous highland pastoralists and more sedentary lowland farmers and agricultural laborers. And there is a history of warfare between tribes, clans within different tribes, and clans within the same tribe, along with competition for political authority between kinship group leaders, politicized mullahs (with either nationalist or pan-Islamist objectives), and other more secular nationalists attempting to seize centralized power in Kabul or Islamabad-or establish a new sovereign-state of Pashtunistan. And those divisions are further complicated by competition between religious nationalists like the Taliban and secular nationalists like the NATO-backed Hamid Karzai government-or his Soviet-backed Communist predecessors-and between religious nationalists and pan-Islamists like al-Qaeda. Although every self-appointed ruler of Afghanistan between 1747 and 1928, 1930 and 1978, and again since 1996 has been a Pashtun, a stable peace has never been fully established within the entire territory of the Afghan-state.

Within the context of those various historical conflicts, the dominant power of local tribal leaders began to shift toward cross-cutting nationalist religious groups during the mujahideen war against the Soviet-supported Marxist governments during the 1980s. Until that time-despite British colonial hype about a few short-lived uprisings led by "mad mullahs"-the influence of local mullahs was limited primarily to religious matters (e.g., managing village mosques and, when invited to do so, reconciling disputes). Their social status was most often not very high - largely because they were dependent on tribal leaders for small salaries and the land that, together, barely provided a subsistence living. That dependency was often reinforced further by the fact that mullahs often first entered communities as outsiders-young men seeking escape from the limitations of familial groups and who, therefore, ventured out in pursuit of religious learning in either a traditional madrassa or under the tutelage of a respected Sufi teacher.

Although there are a few exceptions, the more recent empowerment of politicized mullahs occurred for at least three reasons: the more efficient capacity of religious leaders to organize military forces across kinship boundaries; the United States' focus on defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan without thinking about the unintended consequences of allying ourselves with politicized mullahs; and the decision by Pakistan-following the loss of East Pakistan/Bangladesh less than a decade earlier-to defuse any further secessionist threat by supporting a new breed of radical religious mullahs as a counterpoint to the perceived greater threat posed by tribal leaders. In addition to funneling direct military assistance to the mullahs, the Pakistanis required "Afghans" seeking shelter and other humanitarian assistance within refugee camps to have identity cards that could only be issued by officially approved political parties established primarily by religious leaders rather than tribal leaders. Through their ability to allocate both refugee and American military assistance-reinforced by more direct Saudi and other private Muslim financing of the mullahs-the Pakistanis were able to shift the traditional balance of power.

Nonetheless, in the early stages of that policy, Pakistan did not single out any one of the religious parties or groups as the sole beneficiary of their support. The original Taliban ("Students of Islamic Knowledge Movement") did not clearly emerge as a unified group until 1994-well after the Soviet military presence ended in 1989 and the last Moscow-backed government was replaced by a shaky multi-ethnic alliance of mujahideen groups in 1992. It was only in the context of the continuing civil war following that "victory" that the Pakistani government selected a group of well-trained Taliban in the agriculturally productive irrigated lowlands around Kandahar to protect convoys coming from and going to Pakistan, and the newly independent countries of central Asia-the strategic impact of which they cannot now easily reverse however much they might wish they could. Two years later, the Taliban had morphed into a political movement able to occupy Kabul and declare itself to be the government of Afghanistan-a government legally recognized during its entire five year tenure by only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

For the purpose of making a deal, it is unfortunate that today's Taliban is not led by a charismatic religious leader with sufficient authority to end the conflict if a successful negotiation could be concluded. Instead, the Taliban's survival after its expulsion from Kabul in 2001 is due primarily to the destruction of traditional political forms of local governance without any acceptably effective alternative to replace them. The result has been that already fragmented societies have fragmented even further-with local political leaders struggling for group survival in the short-term. Pushing the Pakistanis to intervene directly in such areas as Swat and Waziristan is likely to further weaken local traditional leaders in favor of politicized mullahs-further degrading a more desirable political balance among them. If Pakistan is the prize, the strategic objective should be to establish conditions whereby our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Pakistani border region does not provide the Taliban with an open highway to the effective exercise of authority there. However, the day that an anti-Taliban force trained by America will actually carry the fight to the Taliban will surely never come as long as we continue to intervene. The problem is not that Afghans lack the capacity to fight for their own interests-after all, the Taliban are Afghans too-but rather that they do not have common interests. Therefore, improving "capacity" through training cannot be the answer to the deteriorating security situation. Indeed, improved capacity is as likely to be turned on us as on our designated enemies - as suggested more than a century ago when "enemy" Pashtun tribesmen arrived at a negotiation session wearing British medals previously awarded to them as allies in earlier suppression campaigns.

Although a Taliban "victory" might eventually result in increased trans-tribal unity from which an Afghan nation-state might-in the distant future-eventually emerge, the more likely outcome is further civil war between various factions within the AfPak region, accompanied by continued deterioration of the security situation. Indeed, the few regionally powerful warlords-especially those that cooperated with U.S. Special Forces and CIA operatives during the initial months of our intervention-are products of Afghanistan's substantially smaller Tajik and Uzbek minority groups who have repeatedly proven their antipathy for the Taliban. Thus, the Taliban are most likely to face a wide-range of militarized political groups who are as opposed to them as we were and who will fight them in our absence. Ultimately, Afghan security will be established-if it ever is established-as the result of victories won and defeats suffered by a critical mass of political leaders in that country who have suffered the consequences of pursuing their own interests once no one else is available to do so for them.


Jerry Mark Silverman has a PhD in international relations-government, and his career has involved him directly in nation-building efforts for almost half a century in more than forty countries, including Vietnam and Iraq. His most recent publication in TNI Online was "Too Little, Too Late."