Afghanistan: Everyone Plays The Taliban

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December 28,2008: U.S. plans to increase its Afghan troop strength are in flux. The most recent plans are to basically double U.S. strength there (from 32,000 to  60-65,000.) This would mean five or six combat brigades, an aviation brigade and lots more intelligence and Special Forces troops. This would mean about a dozen more battalions of U.S. infantry, as the new brigade structure has reduced the number of battalions from three to two. But each battalion now has four combat companies, instead of three. The aviation brigade has about a hundred helicopters (half transport, half combat). The new brigades also have more support troops (all trained to fight) attached.  It would take about 18 months to get all the new forces to Afghanistan. That would then result in a Western force of about 100,000 troops (62,000 U.S. and 40,000 NATO). In that time, the Afghans are expected to expand their own security forces (police and army), arm and train some tribal militias, to produce a total force of nearly 300,000 local and foreign troops and police.

Canada, and some other NATO members, object to the U.S. plan to provide weapons and training to form more reliable anti-Taliban militias. The U.S. and Britain believe these militias are an acceptable risk. All the dozens of tribes (and many more major clans) in Afghanistan have militias. These are usually very much "come as you are" operations, with men armed with their personal weapons, and leaders providing (if they are flush enough) vehicles, communications (radios, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, whatever) and other essentials (food, medical care.) Quality varies enormously. Those tribes or clans that are into the drug business are much better equipped (including protective vests, night vision devices and plenty of ammo.) The pro-Taliban tribes are not quite as well off, obtaining additional money from drug lords (for helping keep the police away from the drug operations) and Islamic charities (whose money is supposed to go for non-combat improvements, but often doesn't.)

Many NATO nations are appalled at the amount of corruption in Afghanistan, with tribal leaders often keeping most of the aid provided to their tribe, for themselves. These nations prefer to put more effort into cleaning up the government, police (which are notoriously inept and corrupt) and improving the army (which is pretty good, but small). But the Americans and British have worked with these tricky tribal situations often in the past. As the Brits like to put it, "who dares, wins." The Americans have decades of experience with the tribes, having been there since the 1980s, during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Europeans don't always trust American combat experience, it being an article of faith in Europe that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake, and winning that war was a fluke. Those lucky, but ignorant, Americans! The anti-militia crowd will lose this argument, but you'll see a lot about it in the media. Allies squabbling, whether real or imagined, makes for exciting news. But the basic American strategy is to play the game the Afghan way. The tribes are in it for the long haul, and will change sides if they sense they are losing. The Americans and Brits want to use superior firepower, mobility and cash reserves to flip as many tribes as possible, as quickly as possible, to hand the Taliban a very obvious, and well publicized "defeat."

The tribal militia strategy means getting involved with the many disputes between tribes. The Americans recognize that you cannot avoid these disputes. If you are in the area, the local tribes consider you a player. So the Americans want to play with a plan, and a strong hand. Many Europeans are aghast at this approach, but the Americans point out that this is what is. Wishing Afghanistan were less chaotic and easier to deal with will not accomplish anything. It's a nasty and unpredictable corner of the world, and if you want to win, you have to play by local rules. It would take generations to "civilize" the rural population to a European standard. A victory of sorts can be obtained much more quickly.  The U.S. is sending thousands of additional intelligence and Special Forces troops, along with new equipment that makes it easier to watch the ground below, and pick up enemy transmissions. U.S. intel forces have become quite adept at sorting out tribal politics. While the tribes of Iraq and Afghanistan are quite different, they share many similarities, and numerous American  intel officers, with lots of Iraq experience, have already done tours in Afghanistan. The Americans believe they have the knowledge, and experience, to play the Afghan tribes. In most cases, the enhanced tribal militias will mainly be for gathering better intelligence. The Western troops are still much better and (more importantly) reliable fighters. Afghan tribal leaders are notorious for looking out for their own best interests, and not digging in for suicidal last stands.

The U.S. sees the Taliban as a tribal confederation dedicated to opposing the central government. This has been a popular tribal activity for centuries. In the past, it was often the goal of the tribal coalition to capture Kabul (long seen as the national capital), and become the new central government. The Taliban have a problem in that they did this in the mid-1990s, and the government they established had, by the late 1990s, become very unpopular. Tribal leaders have memories, and are willing to use the Taliban (to keep the government from interfering with drug running, smuggling or whatever), but not be ruled by them. The Taliban try to collect a "tax" (about ten percent) in areas where they are strong enough to keep the police and army at bay. The Taliban also elect loyal locals as government officials, but play down the return of the Taliban controlling the central government. This is practical, because the majority of Afghans are hostile to the Taliban, and have recent experience to explain why. If ties to the Taliban become a liability, tribal leaders will cut them. This has been happening regularly for the last six years, and the Afghan government has a department dedicated to making and maintaining such arrangements. The new U.S. forces will be put to work giving these bureaucrats lots more work.

 

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