[Deepak Tripathi's latest book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan is now available from Amazon.com.]
Armed militias of the type used to fight the insurgency in Iraq are to be introduced to Afghanistan in what is seen as a controversial part of the new strategy of General David Petraeus to counter the tide of Taliban attacks.
So General Petraeus has begun his drive to transform the ‘human terrain’ in Afghanistan. President Karzai put up strong resistance, but finally accepted.
The development is highly significant and a provisional assessment of future scenarios is needed. Gen. Petraeus’s new plan means several things and raises new questions. First, there will be recruitment and arming of local militias in the south and the north to fight the Taliban. For months, Washington has accused President Hamid Karzai of collaborating with warlords. How then is America’s latest strategy different? Karzai’s main fear is that the Petraeus plan will create more regional warlords at the Obama administration’s behest and his government’s authority will be undermined.
The US plan has obvious short-term advantages, most importantly for Obama’s desire to start withdrawing US troops by July 2011. But there are inherent dangers for Afghanistan’s future. Local Afghan militias, like Iraq’s Awakening Councils, will do the fighting, if enough can be attracted by dollar money.
Violence will increase in the coming months and maybe longer, but the US-led occupation forces’ burden of combat will be eased. It will mean fewer casualties among foreign troops, but more Afghan casualties, including civilian.
If all goes to plan, which is by no means certain due to immensely more complex society that is Afghanistan, President Obama will be able to tell the US electorate as November 2012 approaches that victory has been achieved in the Afghan war.
It is too late to raise enough local militia units before September 18th when parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Afghanistan. They may have to be postponed again; if not, there could be widespread violence and intimidation during the campaign.
The Petraeus move flies in the face of the plan so far to raise big enough Afghan military and police forces, professionally trained to keep order in the country and pave the way for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.
The new strategy of General Petraeus means tribalization, not modernization, of Afghanistan’s security forces. It represents a dramatic climb-down in the international community’s ambition and commitment in Afghanistan. It will lead to militarization instead of demilitarization of the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. It will fuel arms smuggling; open up further divisions between the many ethnic groups – Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch and others; and it will reinforce tribal and sectarian strife between Sunni (80 percent) and Shi’a (less than 20 percent). It is a recipe for long-term instability.
US officials insist that the new groups would be better organized and managed. “These would be government-formed, government-paid, government-uniformed local police units who would keep any eye out for bad guys – in their neighborhoods, in their communities – and who would, in turn, work with the Afghan police forces and the Afghan Army to keep them out of their towns,” said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman. “This is a temporary solution to a very real, near-term problem.”