In September of 2006, as the Sons of Iraq—the so-called Anbar Awakening—began to emerge in Al Anbar province. At that time, one of the leaders improbably boasted that after they defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq, they would go to Afghanistan and defeat Al-Qaeda there. And so they have . . . after a fashion.
The New York Time reported yesterday that the United States and its allies have begun arming independent, indigenous anti-Taliban militias. These militias, like the Awakening Councils in Iraq, have grown-up organically. Unlike the Awakening Councils, the Afghan militias do not appear to be localized to any particular region of Afghanistan. Rather, they appear to be spread throughout Afghanistan. Also, unlike the Awakening Councils, they do not appear be overtly nationalist. Apparently, the anti-Taliban militias are something of a village-by-village or valley-by-valley response to the Taliban that the United States hopes to harness and coordinate into a tribal uprising.
As the Awakening Councils gained momentum in the spring of 2007, I wrote that, while the Sons of Iraq were clearly serving a useful end, the emergence of an armed group not necessarily loyal to the State—and one the Shiite central government clearly feared—could be dangerous. My fear then was that if the Iraqi central government did not achieve some sort of condominium with the Sons of Iraq, Iraq would eventually witness another round of sectarian violence, this time between two entities armed and supported by the United States. Fortunately, the Iraqi Central Government and the Sons of Iraq have been able to work together, and the civil war has not be renewed.
Afghan Awakening Councils do not present the same threat of civil war. However, building any armed power structure outside of the State is inherently dangerous. That said, in the case of Afghanistan, devolving power to the tribes may be the appropriate solution to the vexing problem of how to stabilize Afghanistan.
I have, in the past, drawn parallels between Somalia and Afghanistan—the threat their respective instabilities pose to US national security. Somalia, as strange as it may sound, may possess an example of the utility of devolving power to traditional tribal structures: Somaliland. Somaliland is a stable, self-governing, and democratic entity in northern Somalia. Its success may be attributable to the indigenous, tribal-based reconciliation process it underwent in the early 1990s—a reconciliation process that was successful in marked contrast to the constant, on-going failure of externally grafted reconciliation processes in rump Somalia.
All of the above is to suggest that a widespread tribal uprising, supported by the United States, will not in the near-term result in a strong, central government. However, unlike the corrupt Karzai regime, grafted on Afghanistan from outside forces, the indigenous tribal structures may actually be able to police their individual domains, and extend necessary stability throughout Afghanistan.
Of course, the twin difficulties of convincing the Pashtun tribes to abandon the Taliban, and of convincing the tribes that have taken up arms against the Taliban not to later turn those arms on even a weak Afghan state remain. That said, US support for the tribal militias represents a heartening step towards pursuing a coherent strategy that both reflects Afghan realities and is responsive to real US national security needs.