This week, our group was supposed to talk about counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Instead, we got carried away into an intense discussion about tribal engagement. Students were presented with Major Jim Gant’s One Tribe at a Time, a document as fascinating as it is controversial. Since it was published in 2009, the report has been widely circulated and discussed in the U.S. military. I myself had the opportunity to attend a workshop devoted to tribal engagement. Findings are all available online and definitely worth looking at for anyone interested in the Afghan conflict (Tribal Engagement Workshop 2010).
In One Tribe at a Time, Gant lays out a tribal engagement strategy, aimed at filling up the security vacuum the Taliban have been so eager to take advantage of. According to him:
We must work first and forever with the tribes for they are the most important military, political and cultural units in that country. The tribes are self-contained fighting units who will fight to the death for their tribal family’s honor and respect (Gant, 2009: 4).
As he acknowledges himself in the report, Gant’s entire premise is based on his own experience in Konar Province (Eastern Afghanistan) in 2003. Since then, tribal engagement has been successfully implemented in Iraq (although the ‘Sunni Awakening’ initiative has also been deeply criticized), which strongly influenced the debate on tribal engagement in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the Afghan context is very different from the Iraqi situation.
Tribal structures are not present everywhere in Afghanistan, and when they are, they do not work like the ones in Iraq. They are also different from one place to another. Kandahari tribes are for example very different from the one Gant embedded with in Konar. Hierarchical structures are dissimilar, and that alone, jeopardizes the implementation of a tribal engagement strategy. It is hard to determine whether hierarchical tribal structures would be strong enough to maintain discipline among newly armed fighters. Tribal institutions have suffered from thirty years of war, and in some places, even the existence of ‘legitimate’ tribal leaders is questionable. Truly local leaders are hard to identify. Assuming that it is possible, it would require a lot of human intelligence.
Legitimacy is another issue that the coalition must consider before engaging with tribes. How do we, as outsiders, define a ‘legitimate’ tribal leader? How do we choose? It goes without saying that meddling into Afghan local politics has proved lethal in the past. Empowering some local actors over others will necessarily create winners and sour losers. Skirmishes between Shinwari sub-tribes already led to bloody shootouts, and there is no reason to believe that these tensions will disappear. Both international observers and the Afghan government therefore fear that empowering non-state actors could backfire and lead to a re-balkanization of the country. Any sustainable solution would thus require the integration of the tribal security apparatus into the national one. It is, of course, easier said than done. The Afghan government is highly unpopular in most of these communities, and international funding is also in short supply – especially since many donors fear that tribal engagement would lead to a new era of looting and warlordism.
For all these reasons, and many more, the implementation of a tribal engagement strategy in Afghanistan has been really controversial. Most of the participants to the previously-mentioned Tribal Engagement Workshop instead favored a more flexible ‘community engagement’ strategy, that could, on a case by case basis, be adapted to different social environments. In any case, empowering and arming non-state actors, be they tribal leaders or village elders, seems to be the way the United States is leaning towards. The discussion on militias is far from over!