Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan. Iraq

Empowering Afghan Militias is No Solution

In my earlier post, I noted the disconnect between governance and military strategies in Afghanistan. Generals are less willing to paper over problems than many diplomats; military leaders’ metric charts involve not money allocated but rather lives lost and letters written to next of kin. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many generals have barely concealed their antipathy toward diplomats and other civilians whom they consider to be out-of-touch with the realities on the ground. (The generals’ respect for Ryan Crocker is a notable exception).

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sought to bypass the civilian policy and governance roadblock by doing what it takes to ensure security at a local level. For many generals, this has meant co-opting and empowering local militias. Empowering local militias not beholden to central command or necessarily loyal to the central government has obvious drawbacks. In 2004, Gen. David Petraeus cast aside objection from Baghdad and empowered former Baathists and Islamists in Mosul. They turned around and stabbed the Americans in the back, leaving the unit who came to Mosul in the wake of Petraeus’ departure to pick up the pieces. The same strategy failed again in Fallujah, where the Fallujah Brigade presided over a six-fold increase in car bombings. Still, the U.S. military tried again. They helped form the “Awakening Councils” in the Al Anbar governorate, Sunni Arab militias who turned on al-Qaeda and provided the support and blood upon which the success of the Surge depended. At no time, however, was the interplay between the Awakening Councils and the central government in Baghdad well-defined. And while it is possible for American advocates of the surge to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism for the lack of the Awakening Council’s subsequent integration into the Iraqi security apparatus, the fact remains that the Awakening Councils were just as sectarian, perhaps even more so, than political leaders in Baghdad. In effect, the embrace of the Awakening Councils fulfilled a short-term goal at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability.

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In my earlier post, I noted the disconnect between governance and military strategies in Afghanistan. Generals are less willing to paper over problems than many diplomats; military leaders’ metric charts involve not money allocated but rather lives lost and letters written to next of kin. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many generals have barely concealed their antipathy toward diplomats and other civilians whom they consider to be out-of-touch with the realities on the ground. (The generals’ respect for Ryan Crocker is a notable exception).

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sought to bypass the civilian policy and governance roadblock by doing what it takes to ensure security at a local level. For many generals, this has meant co-opting and empowering local militias. Empowering local militias not beholden to central command or necessarily loyal to the central government has obvious drawbacks. In 2004, Gen. David Petraeus cast aside objection from Baghdad and empowered former Baathists and Islamists in Mosul. They turned around and stabbed the Americans in the back, leaving the unit who came to Mosul in the wake of Petraeus’ departure to pick up the pieces. The same strategy failed again in Fallujah, where the Fallujah Brigade presided over a six-fold increase in car bombings. Still, the U.S. military tried again. They helped form the “Awakening Councils” in the Al Anbar governorate, Sunni Arab militias who turned on al-Qaeda and provided the support and blood upon which the success of the Surge depended. At no time, however, was the interplay between the Awakening Councils and the central government in Baghdad well-defined. And while it is possible for American advocates of the surge to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism for the lack of the Awakening Council’s subsequent integration into the Iraqi security apparatus, the fact remains that the Awakening Councils were just as sectarian, perhaps even more so, than political leaders in Baghdad. In effect, the embrace of the Awakening Councils fulfilled a short-term goal at the expense of Iraq’s long-term stability.

In Afghanistan, as well, the same generals have pursued the same short-term strategy. Against the backdrop of a lackluster central government, they have built up local militias to fight the Taliban. This has understandably infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who condemns any government or military organ which is outside the control of his family. Alas, if there is a lesson to be learned from Iraq, it is that anyone who defects to work with the Americans can just as easily defect to fight Americans. No one should ever count on ideological loyalty in the region. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. It is a matter of principle, just not the same one which guides American troops. Americans condemn flip-flopping in politicians and consider switching sides in war treason. For Afghans, however, top priority is the family. If switching sides better protects one’s family, then there is nothing shameful in it. Perhaps the best case in point is Karzai himself. During the Clinton administration, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher wanted to pass messages to the Taliban, the Taliban representative to which he would turn was none other than… Hamid Karzai.

Against this backdrop, the announcement that one of the Afghan Local Police militias formed, equipped, and trained by the Americans has defected to the Taliban should not surprise. No Afghan believes that the United States remains committed to remain in Afghanistan. The Afghan Security Pact recently signed was short on specifics, and financial commitments are meaningless without congressional agreement.

Here, history can be a guide. President Obama and the generals are, ironically, following the same strategy pursued by the Soviet Union. In the run-up to the Soviet withdrawal, the Red Army trained and equipped a number of local militias. With the Soviet Union on its way out of the country, each defected or dissolved in time. Building militias to substitute for progress at the national political level is not only akin to applying a band aid to a deep wound, but is also guaranteed to worsen the infection down the line.

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