It takes a tribe

I am very uneasy about the President's plan for Afghanistan.  I would like to share my thoughts on that.

The plan, in a nutshell, is to build up local Afghan troops and police, to handover all responsibilities to them, and to leave.  The goal, in a nutshell, is to prevent Al-Quaeda/Taliban/other bad elements from regaining power in Afghanistan, thereby preventing a safe haven where they can plot terror attacks.  Thus, the goals will be met only if the Afghan troops are able to take control, and keep the bad elements at bay.

What is the likelihood of that happening ?  Very slim, according to Afghan history.

First, let us look at raw numbers (and yes, I realize that numbers alone don't mean much).  Here is a chart that plots the strength of the Afghan army over time.
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The current strength is around 100k soldiers, and the plan calls for increasing that.   Gen. McChrystal wants to increase the combined (police + Army) to around 400k; but Pres. Obama steered clear of that proposal yesterday.  Instead, current plans call for an increase to 134k troops, and 82k police by 2011 when the handover would occur.   This is a level that Gen. McChrystal has warned as being insufficient but which appears consistent with the recent trajectory and a deadline of 2011 (as you can see from the same chart, with some lines drawn)

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I find this curious.  Does it mean that the goals and milestones were defined in such a manner so as to ensure that the mission is declared a success in 2011 (by contrast, at the current trajectory, we would not hit 240k Afghan troops until 2015); even if the larger objectives (that of preventing Afghanistan from become a terrorist haven after that) is compromised ?  I hope not! But I find this to be a curious coincidence.

Beyond the political and strategic implications of ignoring your commanders advice, there is a larger issue of gauging what numbers are sufficient.  Obviously, numbers are not the only criterion, or else there would be a fairly straightforward method of determining adequate numbers.  What also matters is quality, training levels, motivation, and loyalty.  

The fact that numbers alone are not sufficient can be seen by the size of the Afghan army in the 1980s.  Najibullah (the head of the PDPA government when the Soviets left) had around 50k soldiers.  Regardless of whether you think the numbers required are 240k or 134k, 50k would appear to be insufficient so Najibullah's government was widely expected to collapse within days.  And yet, Najibullah survived 4 years, and his government collapsed only after defections from his key generals.  

Thus, the question is not so much numbers, but quality, training, and loyalties of the numbers.  134k may be sufficient, if they are all highly trained, and highly motivated; or 240k may be insufficient if they all turn against you.

So how does one gauge that ?  There are some metrics that one can use, but they are not definitive.  One metric is the desertion rate:  a high desertion rate would indicate compromised effectiveness.  Another metric is infighting: some sketchy reports suggest a desertion rate of around 10%, with instances of fighting between various Afghan Army units (one example was fighting between forces loyal to Gen. Ismail Khan and Abdul Zahir Nayezadeh; who both provisionally report to Karzai).  These metrics would indicate a very bad situation.  But, by comparison, the Afghan Army had a 20-25% desertion rate in the 1980s (nearly 10k men would desert every year); so 10% would appear healthy by comparison.  On the other hand, Najibullah was undone when one of his key Generals (Abdul Rashid Dostum) changed sides!

We can also look at Afghan history for a guide.  It turns out that the US attempt to build up the Afghan Army is the 4th such attempt in the modern era.  The previous 3 attempts have all failed, so history is not very comforting on that.  Thus, it is instructive to look at those attempts.  The 3 previous attempts were in the 1880s (following the 2nd Anglo Afghan war of 1878-1880), following the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war (1919), and the Soviet backed reorganization that was begun in the 1960s.  In addition, one can also view the Soviet invasion/Najibullah era (1978-1992) as another attempt to rebuild the Afghan Army ~ although that attempt was mostly a recognition of tribal primacy.  It is useful to look at the historical documentation from these attempts.

A British observer of the Afghan society, Edward Hensman, wrote in 1881:

"The Afghan does not lack native courage, and in hill warfare he is unrivaled, so long as it takes the shape of guerrilla fighting. But once he is asked to sink his identity and to become merely a unit in a battalion, he loses all self-confidence and is apt to think more of getting away than of stubbornly holding his ground as he would have done with his own friends led by his own chief."
(Source: link )

This becomes an issue of motivation.  Afghan society was (and is) largely organized around tribes.  Thus, the Afghan fights very hard when he/she is fighting for the tribe, but loses interest when fighting for the country (which does not exist in his mind).  Absent the motivation to fight for the tribe, and if country does not exist, the only remaining factor is religion.  And so, the kings/governments would often invoke Islam and threats brought by foreign infidels.  Now, it is true that Kings of all religions have invoked religion, and the Muslim Kings of Afghanistan were not an exception in their calls to Jihad ~ thus "Jihad" can be a useful motivational tool.  But while "Jihad" is a useful tool to fight off the infidel, it does not create a society (or the "ummah" ~ a religion based Islamic nation).  Creating the "ummah" requires a different kind of struggle, and absent that, the society reverts back to it's tribal structure once the infidels leave.  In fact, in my opinion, the repeated calls to Jihad leaves a tribal society that becomes gradually more Islamicized; and absent the moderating influence associated with an ummah, it is simply a radical form of Islam.  (Thus, expect Taliban 2.0 to be more radical than Taliban 1.0)

Thus, previous attempts to mold a national Army have gradually evolved into recognition that the tribe holds primacy, and will always hold primacy.  Everything else (including a draft; which has been tried twice) has failed.  Najibullah, for instance, had his fighting forces organized under tribal lines.  This model works only as long as the central government can retain the loyalty of the tribal elders.  Going back to Najibullah, he commanded the loyalty of the Uzbeks, but not of the Tajiks.  He was undone when the Uzbeks (led by the Uzbek General Dostum) joined forces with the Tajiks (Ahmed Shah Masood).

So, how does a national government work when the tribes hold primacy ?  In many ways, the King (or the President) has had to recognize the primacy of the tribes, and make do with whatever deals he could cut with the tribes.  Think of a highly federated structure, where even defence is controlled by the individual units.  Thus, Afghanistan has had 3 types of military institutions: regular army (commanded by the central government, and often marked with low morale and high defections), tribal armies that comprised part time soldiers commanded by tribal generals who would contract them out to the King or to other tribes, and community militias that would be mobilized by community leaders.  Under this structure, the tribal general would control most sources of revenue (for instance, Karzai does not control border trade of illicit petroleum with Iran...Ismail Khan of Herat does.   Ismail Khan used to be the Governor of Herat ~ he is now, appropriately, the Minister of Energy under Karzai), and would receive gifts of land/cash/privileges in return for the use of his tribal militias.  This system is commonly referred to as "corruption" in western society, but it happens to be the way Afghan society is structured.  

Another issue is the mentality of the fighter.  The Afghan model for fighting can be best described by the words of Khoshal Khan Khattak (Khattak is a military title, Afghan fighting units are organized by Khattak);

When you fight a smaller enemy detachment you should decisively attack with surprise. But, if the enemy receives reinforcement [or] when you encounter a stronger enemy force, avoid decisive engagement and swiftly withdraw only to hit back where the enemy is vulnerable. By this you gain sustainability and the ability to fight a long war of attrition. . . . A war of attrition eventually frustrates the enemy, no matter how strong he may be . . . and that gives a chance of victory to a small force fighting against an invading army.

This ethos should shed some light on why the Taliban were defeated so easily in 2001.  This ethos makes for a fine tribal warrior ~ one who can go back to his farm and act like a farmer most of the time, and only pick up his gun when an opportunity strikes.  Such a warrior does not like to march in battalions, and will desert at the first opportunity!  As an example, the Soviet invasion of 1978 was precipitated in large part by large defections (nearly ¾ of the 100k) that was a result of the "Saur revolution".  Thus, while Soviet training of the 1960s was able to build up a large, well trained Army, it evaporated in a flash ~ proving that numbers AND quality AND training are insufficient without motivation.  The Soviets, who did not believe in God, did not have religion on their side.  Given the Afghan warrior mindset (as described by Khushal Khan Khattak), it was fairly natural that the defectors would return to their tribes, and pick up the cause of Jihad against the infidel (the same scenario would evolve later on with the Taliban and the US).

So, how does one change all this?  The answer should be fairly obvious: build up a national government, commonly derided as "nation-building".  I am going to quote this conclusion from a US Army study authored by AA Jalali in 2002:  

 Rebuilding Afghanistan's national army is not only an essential element in stabilizing the war-torn country but also a contribution to the effectiveness of the US-led international war on terrorism in South and Central Asia. It is a highly cost-effective project, but also an expensive and lengthy endeavor. Its success is linked to three major variables: the emergence of a legitimate broad-based government, the availability of resources, and time . A legitimate government will encourage the regional forces to dissolve their militias in the interest of creating a national army. Resources for the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan will provide favorable conditions for demobilization and reintegration of the combatants, and for building an effective military establishment. And, finally, the process will take time to reach fruition. Serious and continued US engagement, perseverance, and support is essential to build an effective national army in Afghanistan, one that will hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in support of empowering the central government and stabilizing the country.

So, what we need is a legitimate broad-based government, resources, and time.  

And what do we have: we know that the recent elections were a fraud, and even if we have sufficient resources, we do not have the time (2011 is only 18 months).

The signs are not encouraging.  For instance, the aforementioned Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum returned from exile on the eve of the recent elections.   He got a rousing welcome from a crowd of 10,000 and he threw his support behind Karzai (thereby helping ensure Karzai's win).  His words:

"We are hopeful. We are determined. Playing with General Dostum is playing with a million people," he told a cheering crowd. "Playing with General Dostum is playing with a storm. Playing with General Dostum will be tough and will create anger."
  While the US let Karzai know that Dostum's return was not going to be helpful, Karzai welcomed Dostum (and his support), and even gave him a ceremonial military title.  We are back to a situation where the national government is cutting deals with the tribes, and will stay afloat only as long as tribes find it convenient.  In the meantime, the Taliban have found a convenient infidel against whom they can launch a Jihad.  Sooner, or later, the tribal leaders will follow course.

Now that the President has set a timetable, I expect that Karzai will resume his efforts at cutting the necessary deals with all the tribes.  I believe that the strength of the Afghan Army will be meaningless, under the circumstances.

Playing with General Dostum will indeed be tough and will create anger.  

I suspect it would have been better to pull out now.  In fact, I suspect it would have been better not to have gone in at all!!

And, of course, I am also hoping that I am wrong!!

Tags: Afghanistan, Dostum, Karzai, obama, Tribe (all tags)



Re: It takes a tribe

Memories haunt me about this situation. I recall the theocracy imposed on Afganistan by the Taliban, mostly the beatings endured by women on the street by religious cops, who seemingly found that their presence on the street, in spite of being totally covered, was for some reason offensive.

Those pictures smuggled out from time to time still make me wonder if Afganistan will not return to the mysogenic world of its Talibanic past when the Americans leave. Should we worry about this prospect?

by MainStreet 2009-12-02 02:24PM | 0 recs
Re: It takes a tribe

"Those pictures smuggled out from time to time still make me wonder if Afganistan will not return to the mysogenic world of its Talibanic past when the Americans leave."

It probably will. Radical Islam/Wahhabism has not slowed down over the past decade. Even in Iraq - previously secular - they have gained considerable ground. It's the same in Pakistan, Palestine, Lebanon...

by vecky 2009-12-02 04:10PM | 0 recs
Re: It takes a tribe

We have therefore to wonder if the US presence will make a difference in changing the cultural and religious climate, given the short time frame it is expected to operate in. If it all just rolls back to the days when the Northern Alliance was standing off the Taliban, then what is the purpose in this US military venture?

by MainStreet 2009-12-02 06:23PM | 0 recs
Yes, that was my worry !!

by Ravi Verma 2009-12-02 06:26PM | 0 recs
Re: It takes a tribe

This strategy is not the end of all of the plan. It's only a temporary solution to push back the resurgent Taliban back to where they were in 2002-2003.

After that the hard part of building up a civil society continues, though with far fewer foreign troops.

by vecky 2009-12-02 08:52PM | 0 recs
Even if fewer troops

results in a resurgent Taliban again ?

by Ravi Verma 2009-12-03 08:32PM | 0 recs
I don't know...

I am not good at predicting things.  Specially the future.  But I feel uneasy!!

What do you think ?

by Ravi Verma 2009-12-02 02:32PM | 0 recs
Re: I don't know...

We are apparently in the same boat. I don't want to see any more innocent civilians killed by friendly fire or intentional if misdirected fire on either side, as we experienced in Iraq or even in Afganistan or in Pakistan.

The ambivalance is maximal to say the least.

by MainStreet 2009-12-02 03:45PM | 0 recs
Afghanistan will go the way of Iraq

and in eight months, it'll be a non issue.

by ND22 2009-12-02 09:19PM | 0 recs
Re: Afghanistan will go the way of Iraq

I don't know. The left dropped the Iraq issue because there was no point in critiquing it any longer. The GOP was equally willing to let it slide.

I doubt the GOP will be quite so complacent here. In Iraq American forces paid ex-insurgents to stop fighting and switch sides. They negotiated with ex-baathists and Sadr lieutenants. The new Afghan strategy will involve both towards tribal leaders and disgruntled Taliban. But I can see the right screaming over "negotiating with terrorists". Never doubt their ability to play politics with military strategy.

by vecky 2009-12-02 09:40PM | 0 recs
I suspect

that Karzai is getting ready to negotiate with Osama bin Laden as well.  He has already declared his willingness to negotiate with Mullah Omar.

I would be curious as to how you would react to that !!

by Ravi Verma 2009-12-03 08:30PM | 0 recs
You must be an optimist!

I mean...8 months ??  

by Ravi Verma 2009-12-03 08:28PM | 0 recs
Re: It takes a tribe

I share some of your concerns over our newly restated policy in Afghanistan.  My short take is that if we see an alignment of aid, infrastructure building and security activity in regions which are threatened yet which have an active and positive local governance committed to the benefit of the local populace then we are on a potential winner.  Otherwise not.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-12-03 02:24PM | 0 recs
Re: It takes a tribe

Your list of "if"s are long... and time is short.

by Ravi Verma 2009-12-03 08:27PM | 0 recs
Re: It takes a tribe

I counted one but your point is well taken, it's pretty unlikely.  I was just setting some friendly benchmarks for 'success.'

by Shaun Appleby 2009-12-03 08:59PM | 0 recs


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