Thursday, January 3, 2008

Militias for Afghanistan

The Financial Times has an interesting piece on British plans for Pashtun tribal militias - known as arbakai. British and Danish military officials are reported to support the idea of establishing the militias in places like Helmand, where British troops lead the NATO efforts. However, the senior NATO general, American Dan McNeill, says such a plan would not work in Helmand though he suggests that in eastern Afghan provinces like Khost the plan might be effective.

... The tribal militia plans have appalled some analysts who say that any attempt to provide tribes with weaponry will further undermine a disarmament process that is already criticised for being ineffective.

Ehsan Zahine, director of the Tribal Liaison Office in Kabul, said it was unlikely that a 200-year-old arbakai system would be effective even in the three south-eastern provinces where it has traditionally held sway.

“In a place like Khost it will be very hard to persuade villages to fight for a government which they regard as abusive. Two years ago our proposal to use arbakai in the south-east was rejected. Now it’s unlikely the tribes would be willing to fight for a government they no longer trust.”

Jelani Popal, the head of the recently created Independent Directorate for Local Administration, is promoting the use of “community self-defence forces” but he told the FT they would have to be relatively formal bodies more akin to a locally recruited police force. In many cases, such local forces would not even be armed.

He said he had come under strong pressure from one of the foreign missions in Kabul to agree to non-uniformed “loose militias”.

“I did not agree to that, we do not want to create mujahedeen groups when we have worked so hard on national disarmament.”

Mr Popal said his proposal was similar to the ill-fated auxiliary police scheme introduced in 2006.

“It was a good idea, but it was badly implemented. Not enough attention was paid to recruitment – people just went to warlords to get 60 people or so. Many of them were drug addicts or criminals, or related to the warlord. We will ensure the community defence forces are properly screened and trained.”

An official at the British embassy in Kabul said the UK was not planning to exactly replicate the arbakai outside the south-eastern border lands. Proposals were being worked out for a small-scale trial of the plan. ... (link)
The reason why an arbakai system might be expected to work in the eastern provinces, while it would not in Helmand, has to do with geography and the nature of Pashtun tribal relations in the two areas. The eastern tribes are located in more mountainous areas where tribal independence is prized - and arguably easier to maintain. (See this photo of a valley in Khost. Notice the mountains which hem the valley in.) Thus, it would be relatively straightforward to establish an arbakai (or legitimize existing ones) on a valley-by-valley basis in the region. In Helmand, by contrast, the tribes are federated into the Durrani or Ghilzai tribal confederations. (Notice too, the typical geography of southern Helmand - see this photo.) Thus, attempts by British forces to put arbakai in charge of a given area in Helmand would run up against the desires of these larger Pashtun tribal federations.

Readers may recall that US officials recently floated the idea of using Pakistani tribal militias in their counter-insurgency efforts on the other side of the Durand line.

No comments: