Empowering Afghan locals is the key to winning
If we learned anything from the war in Iraq, it’s that big-government solutions will fail when imposed on a tribal society with century-old local power structures that we have usurped. Afghanistan is very different from Iraq, but the turnaround in the latter country came only when the US military sought to restore power to traditional local leaders. Those leaders rapidly switched from some of our worst enemies to our best local allies. And with their crucial help, we wiped out Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Afghanistan is even more deeply rooted in local tribal power culture. And we have been alienating local leaders across the country with our made-in-Washington, cookie-cutter approach to governance there. By forcing a weak, ineffective and corrupt central government authority on the provinces, we have angered a lot of already cranky people. Their anger at us is understandable.
So it’s exciting to hear that the White House is actively exploring a new strategy to empower local leaders in Afghanistan. (Let’s hope they ask good questions without micromanaging.) I have long been arguing for a plan that the US military and civilian policymakers from both parties intensely disliked because it’s not all nice and neat, but some of our senior military leaders appear to have similar views on parts of it. Here’s a stripped-down version of what it looks like:
- Empower local tribal leaders, warlords and village elders with their own militias (now being discussed at the White House);
- Arm, equip, train and mentor the local militias (required if the White House opts for local empowerment);
- Pay the locals more than the Taliban and drug traffickers can to hunt down and kill all Al Qaeda and Taliban members who refuse to submit, defect, or abandon the fight, and to help us do the job if the locals can’t (we’re doing some of this already and it’s cheaper than sending more troops);
- Empower the locals to turn Taliban factions against one another, encouraging defections and intra-Taliban fratricide (already being done but needs a big push);
- Peel off and marginalize certain Taliban factions, to splinter and weaken the movement (already being done but needs momentum);
- Reward local leaders who demonstrate a continued commitment to fight narcotics production and Islamist extremism, and to fight corruption that goes beyond the traditionally generous cultural norms (already being done, but locals are undermined by the Big Government strategy);
- Provide logistical and emergency combat backup to ensure the basic security and humanitarian needs of the people in the cities and countryside (in progress, but much more is needed);
- Penalize local leaders who play both sides or turn against us by treating them as we would an enemy (difficult to do, but necessary if we are to promote local empowerment);
- Defeat the enemy at the propaganda game (we’re chasing our tails here and seem pretty helpless without real political leadership); and
- Hold other countries accountable for any harm they inflict on American and Coalition troops and our Afghan allies, and take the war to them (not being done, as our guys continue to die).
This is not a solution for a western-style democracy. But Afghanistan is not a western country. And the “democracy” we have built has discredited itself in ways that should shame us and will certainly come back to haunt us.
Our strategy to date – building and imposing a corrupt central government on an independently-minded , localized populace, while depending on that alienated populace to be our eyes and ears in the counterinsurgency fight, while doing nothing substantive against Iranian involvement in the conflict – is doomed to fail. Yet this is still a war that we can win.
Photo: US Army paratroopers prepare to load into a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during an air-assault mission to detain a known militant in the Bermel district of Paktika province, Afghanistan, Oct. 13, 2009. The paratroopers are assigned to the 25th Infantry Division’s Company B, 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team. US Army photo by Pfc. Andrya Hill