The United States, inevitably, will arm some militias. The question will be how many and where and how?

Milt BeardenCurse of the Khyber Pass

There is an unrelenting insurgency—we call it the Taliban, though that is a dangerous oversimplification. It is in effect a Pashtun insurgency, made up of, indeed, Taliban, but also angry Pashtuns, criminal bands and paid gunfighters.

It takes an Apache to catch an Apache. We need some Pashtun counterinsurgents, and they don’t all need to be Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police.  Some of them could be Kandahar Provincial Guard or Regional Command East Regional Forces/Popular Forces or Afghan Public Protection Force, or tribal police, or the Sayad Abad Jezailchis. 

Then there is the question of how to deal with the militias. Discussion of arming Afghanistan’s militias has led to little in the way of consensus. Many Afghans and some old Afghan hands say it won’t work because it has never worked before, that it will lead to more conflict and that militias armed by outsiders can never be controlled. Others say it is worth a try. Both may be right.

The militia solution always surfaces when a foreign enterprise in Afghanistan faces failure; and, yes, militias armed by outsiders have ended up fighting each other in the past. During the 1980s militias repeatedly turned on their Soviet armorers, or otherwise betrayed them. Indeed, Soviet-armed militias in eastern Afghanistan became quartermasters for the CIA, selling their weapons to the mujahideen for hard CIA cash, while saving the CIA huge transportation costs to boot. The Soviets paid the freight.

But the United States, inevitably, will arm some militias. The question will be how many and where and how? Some recommend giving the Karzai government a hand in the process. That should be carefully thought through, as it may only end up increasing the intramural fighting. If militias must be raised, the United States had better do it in concert with traditional tribal-leadership systems that have been nearly destroyed by thirty years of warfare on both sides of the zero line. The United States must also concurrently work with Pakistan to help regenerate the traditional tribal system in the FATA as a companion effort to arming militias in Afghanistan.

President Karzai may not be happy with U.S. involvement in a militia program; nor will he view the militias we raise as his natural allies. He will be right. The idea of an Afghan presidency designed somehow to control all of Afghanistan was built into the system when the interim government was established in Bonn in 2001. It was a mistake then, as now. The new administration and the new special envoy should correct this as they cajole into existence a presidency with natural Afghan limits and begin to work out new relationships with the outlying governors who hold real power outside Kabul. Whenever Afghanistan has been “well ruled” in the past, those at the helm in Kabul understood their limitations in dictating to the provinces. That balance will have to be reestablished.

In taking these steps, the United States should not expect any long-term gratitude from the militias it arms. At best we should hope that they might restore an old order as they beat back the nihilist upstarts on either side of the border. The arms flows should be structured to prompt continuing good behavior—a tall order, but not an impossible one. The last British political agent in the FATA, Sir Olaf Caroe, was able to keep the tribes “quiet” during his tenure (in the 1930s and 40s) by rewarding “good” behavior with a continued flow of cash and arms. Caroe’s The Pathans should be read by all involved in this challenge, maybe even before picking up the new Petraeus doctrine on counterinsurgency.

Kabul cannot effectively gain and maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The United States and NATO can neither field nor logistically support a force that could secure the population of Afghanistan. The population is going to have to secure themselves. A lot of NGO types and pointy-headed English-speaking Tajik intellectuals don’t want to hear that.

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One response to “The United States, inevitably, will arm some militias. The question will be how many and where and how?

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