July 10, 2010

Petraeus’s Hard Sell

For years Afghan President Hamid Karzai has denied approval of a local militia program to US commanders, who brim with confidence after managing the Sons of Iraq. They tried again, unsuccessfully, several months ago.

Then the Wall Street Journal reported last week, “New legislation, hammered out by American and Afghan officials and expected to be enacted by President Hamid Karzai in coming weeks, would authorize armed village forces across Afghanistan and bring them into the country's law-enforcement system.”

General David Petraeus, fresh on the scene, expected to seal the deal. Ultimately the effects of his political charisma may hinge more on persuading Afghan than US officials, but he’s going to have to wait for at least for a little while longer. The bottom up strategy is still being resisted at the top.

The Journal also noted, “past Special Forces efforts to raise anti-Taliban irregulars have been mired in controversy because of concerns that local militias could spin out of control and wage war on tribal rivals.”

Now the Washington Post reports, “A first meeting last week between the new commander and the Afghan president turned tense after Karzai renewed his objections to the plan, according to U.S. officials.”

So far Petraeus has tried Karzai three times without success.

It’s not as though the program is dead in the water. Pilot units operate in select areas with plans to expand to 23 villages. Each local unit is trained by a 12 member Special Forces team, providing what US officials hope to be an “expanding patchwork of security bubbles." But a full rollout remains on the shelf without approval from Kabul.

Washington understandably believes local militias, coupled with a functioning army and police force, are the way out of Afghanistan. Local forces are COIN 101, a vital link between government forces and the community. And they’re likely good, loyal fighters. US officials promise all local forces will operate at the highest standard and under strict control of the Afghan government.

The problem is that it’s impossible for Washington to keep this promise, not when corruption within government forces remains uncontrollable. Afghanistan’s insurgency isn’t such a heavy a mixture of domestic and international forces as Iraq either. The Taliban represents an indigenous movement despite ties to al-Qaeda, while Afghan tribes aren’t as centralized and loyal compared to the Sunni awakening.

And Karzai knows it.

A senior Afghan official present at the meetings told reporters, "We always have long meetings and many arguments. We always try to teach our foreign partners how to deal with a situation like this. We Afghans know better than you."

This is code for “Iraq isn’t Afghanistan,” and also, “we don’t trust the tribes or players you’re using.”

Mohammed Daoud is the freshest example
. Last month the AP reported that Daoud, a militia leader in the Dand district below Kandahar city, transferred 5,000 of his militiamen to the government police force. But Daoud’s loyalty lies with Gul Agha Sherzai, governor of Nangarhar province and purported opium lord. He doesn’t appear to be helping out of generosity.

Sherzai has also served as former governor of Kandahar province - and is said to be a fierce enemy of Ahmed Wali Karzai, Kandahar provincial council chief. Those men he supplies are expected to stay under his control and it’s feasible, considering that Karzai and Sherzai are rumored drug lords, that their rivalry somehow intertwines here. Hamadullah Nazick, the district chief in Dand, claims to be close with both Karzai and Sherzai.

"I don't think Sherzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai will continue to get along after ISAF forces leave,” he predicts.

But that’s only half the story. Says Daoud, "Everyone around here would like Gul Agha Sherzai to be the next president.” Karzai likely envisions a similar scenario playing out across the country.

America has good reason to explore how to best utilize young men across Afghanistan. Permanently holding Afghanistan's volatile south and east may not be possible without some sort of tribal security program that meshes with the community’s general development. US officials consider this plan critical to the war, and it would seem that Petraeus’s first order of business to make the deal happen is no coincidence.

Though McChrystal is said to have pushed the plan, he’s just the builder of Petraeus’s architecture. Having waited a long time to get his own hands on the project, the manager has finally come down to the site. And Petraeus possesses a reputation for twisting opposing political groups together, or as we saw in one report, “making wrong people do the right things.”

At the same time a secure chain of command isn’t the entire problem; some things can’t be negotiated. Karzai and Sherzai’s feud is one of many, yet Petraeus appears powerless to squash such a deep conflict. If national or local leaders politically oppose each other then they oppose each other. If Washington can't stop the opium trade then it can't stop the opium trade.

This is a lot more complex than al-Qaeda swooping in and killing Sunni men or raping tribesmen’s wives.

Similar principles may apply to Afghanistan, but if they don’t it cannot be made into Iraq. While Petraeus’s best chance of gaining Karzai’s approval is letting Afghans lead the way, keeping all the leaders in line would be far from certain. That may not be enough to persuade Karzai.

Unless, of course, someone twists his arm real hard.


  1. For anyone, Petraeus included, to try to gel together the factions and groupings, even those who are pro-US, seems futile to me. A bit like glueing feathers together hoping for a duck. It won't happen IMO,James. Like leading political figures, all general's careers end in failure one way or another.

  2. Patreus is in a no win situation.
    If he engages the Taliban he has to take many body bags into the field with his troops.
    If he does not engage, he is at a stand still.
    The Afghan people have to consolidate their own factions. It is their country.

  3. That's the message coming out of Afghanistan lately. The tribal situation is as much a minefield as the roads. Washington needs to make it happen though. Definitely one of the big storylines to watch over the next year.

  4. With Iraq as a mosel it is cynical to try to form anti-Taliban militias. The Sunnis that cut out AlQueda for the American forces are now in a sectarian and ethnic armed struggle with the Shia over areas of control and criminal activities. Good for the USA because it has achieved its own objective of closing down the insurgency but the same for people living in the country.

    The Afghanistan situation is and has always been a tribal nightmare. Divide and rule is effective but it is cynical. The British were the past masters. They controlled continents by doing it.