Some tribes of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan will be armed against the Taliban to help combat the increasingly brazen insurgency. This is the latest security plan, apparently proposed by the Government of Afghanistan and backed by the U.S., the U.K. and the United Nations.
The plan is inspired by similar tactics used in Iraq, where the Americans armed and financed Sunni Arab groups to turn them against the insurgency. It succeeded in Iraq, and strategists think it will succeed here in Afghanistan. They maybe right at first glance; there are some similarities between Iraq of two years ago and Afghanistan of today. Like in Afghanistan, Iraq’s nascent government struggled for writ and support, its defense forces were often plagued by divisions, and many disenchanted Sunni Arabs had joined the insurgency.
But these comparisons are simplistic, perhaps in part inspired by the Western World’s lumping of Afghanistan with Iraq in the blurry ‘Middle East’ region, and viewing them as sharing a common ‘culture.’ The ground realities in Afghanistan are much different. Divisions here are not merely sectarian; rather, they are sectarian, ethnic as well as tribal. Arming one group to turn it against another would only exacerbate the situation.
And as much as the Karzai government would like everyone to believe, the insurgency is not entirely comprised of hit-and-run Pakistanis from across the border. The ‘Taliban’ in the South, the bastion of the insurgency, consists of the disenchanted Pashtoon tribal groups who feel left out.
Power in Afghanistan in the past couple of centuries has mainly stayed in the hands of the Durrani, one of the two main branches of the Pashtoons. The Ghilzais, the second branch, have had very little governing power. The same tribal division plays out in Afghanistan today: Some Durrani clans call most of the shots, while the Ghilzai clans in the South feel marginalized. These are the clans that were the actual Taliban, and the ones that today fuel the insurgency.
But the new plan aims to arm “local communities and tribes” to help them protect what they consider to be their “traditional homes.” If the local tribes means the Durrani clans, this can fuel further resentment with the current establishment among the Ghilzais. Conversely, the arms given to Ghilzai tribes may end up being used against the government, the international forces and civilians of the different ethnic group.
However, whether the Durranis are armed or the Ghilzais, these armed tribal militias will essentially be autonomous, not under control of any recognized authority. This takes Afghanistan back to the pre-DDR and DIAG days, where hundreds, even thousands, of armed militia groups roamed free outside government control. This new plan can reinvigorate warlordism, wasting the hundreds of millions of DDR and DIAG dollars that brought a great measure of stability, particularly in the North and northwest.
That stability may become history when the former Northern warlords see that not only there are no consequences for rearming, but that the government itself is arming their counterparts in the South. And since there’s only a delicate ethnic balance in many parts of the country, the potential rearming spree may actually leave Afghanistan in far worse condition than now.
Karzai must understand that his new security plan will result in the creation of homegrown militas, more loyal to the insurgency than the government. The international community must realize that Afghanistan is not Iraq. Together they must stop juggling with fire before it completely engulfs Afghanistan.