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Enlisting Tribes Against Militants In Afghanistan Carries Risks

U.S. soldiers patrol near Afghan-Pakistan border
General David McKiernan, the top commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has recommended giving more power to local councils to stem violence in the country.

Speaking to the Washington-based Atlantic Council of the United States on November 21, the general said achieving "reconciliation at the local level" has the potential to be " a very, very powerful metric." McKiernan emphasized that he understands the unique challenges faced in Afghanistan. But he also stressed that his plan would borrow from the Iraq model, which takes a "bottom up" approach that taps and organizes local communities tired of the harsh rules and lack of security associated with radical militants.

"What I do think has great merit -- great potential -- is a community outreach program that takes an area, say a district, in Afghanistan and brings together the leaders of that district," McKiernan said. "Whether they are tribal elders; whether they are maliks; whether they are religious scholars; mullahs; whatever, in a shura; [it] allows them to select a committee to represent that community."

McKiernan added that such an approach would have multiple benefits. It would allow the Afghan government in Kabul to empower these committees so they can provide local security and oversight. At the same time, it would also allow the central government to benefit from the insight community leaders.

But local leaders are taking a cautious approach, noting the harsh realities on the ground and warning of the risks involved.

Costs And Benefits

One such leader is Nader Khan Katwazi, a parliamentarian representing Afghanistan's eastern Paktika Province -- an area that has witnessed a rise in Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces.

Katwazi acknowledges that Pashtun tribes in southeastern Afghanistan have a tradition of "Arbakis" or "Chalweshtis," groups of tribal volunteers that can be mobilized to defend local communities against threats. In a recent example, Arbakis ensured security during the 2004 and 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections in southeastern Afghanistan.

However, Katwazi says that in general such traditions and tribal structures in Afghanistan have been significantly weakened by war over the past 30 years. Afghans, he notes, have fresh memories of their suffering at the hands of private militias and warlords armed by their respective international backers in the 1980s and 1990s. Katwazi says reconciliation through negotiation is the only way to heal old wounds.

"If they [the armed opponents of the Afghan government] are not ready to negotiate then the Afghan government and the international community has the right to fight them," Katawazai says. "But their first priority -- to resolve this conflict -- should be negotiations. The Arbakis and the increase in [Western] troops will not help in resolving Afghanistan's problem."

Across the border in Pakistan, the risks associated with a strategy of empowering local leaders are clearly visible.

In the past three months, various local "Lashkars" -- groups of local tribal volunteers -- have fought pitched battles against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda affiliated militants in parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the insurgency-plagued Swat district of neighboring North West Frontier Province.

As a result, those Lashkars have become a prime target for the Taliban. On November 20, a suicide blast killed 10 people in a early evening prayer congregation. Among the victims was Malik Rehmatullah Khan, an anti-Taliban tribal leader in the district of Bajaur bordering eastern Afghanistan.

Just days earlier, on November 17, seven tribal leaders were killed by Taliban militants after a prolonged battle in the same district. The leaders had organized anti-Taliban Lashkars and had even demolished the houses of top militant commanders. And on November 6, a suicide bomber in Bajaur killed 22 and injured 45 tribal leaders who had been debating how to assist Pakistan's military efforts against the Taliban.

Managing Local Rivalries

Khalid Aziz, a Peshawar-based regional analyst who formerly held senior administrative positions in the tribal areas and the NWFP, has a more optimistic view. In a recent interview, he told RFE/RL that, if properly implemented, reaching out to local tribes can be of great help in defeating the rising insurgency.

"If you look at the counterinsurgency history and its doctrine, you cannot win and fight against an insurgency only by using military forces. Twenty percent is supposed to be the military side of it [and] 80 percent is supposed to be the people side of it," Aziz said. "Now that is not the ratio that we are seeing in Pakistan or Afghanistan. It is the other way round, we see 80 percent military action and only 20 percent the civilian side."

Aziz adds, however, that the current anti-Taliban Lashkars are not properly trained and equipped to take on seasoned Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

Latif Afridi, a senior Pashtun politician and a tribal leader from the Khyber region west of Peshawar, says tribal uprisings against extremists can only work when there is a regional and international consensus on resolving various local rivalries and disputes. Such rivalries have complicated anti-terrorism efforts on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

If unresolved, Afridi says such disputes can escalate into civil war.

"The civil war will spiral out of control and it will reach the cities, and blood will be flowing in streams everywhere," Afridi says. "If the Pakistani government does not try to resolve this situation by urgently taking honest steps that result in resolving its differences with the U.S. and put an end to extremists sanctuaries and warlords on its soil while restoring peace, then I know this whole situation is moving toward a big disaster."

Many in Pakistan and Afghanistan think that the best way to prevent such an outcome is to invoke another time-tested, Pashtun tradition -- the jirga or council of elders in which disputes are settled.

In late October, Pakistani and Afghan politicians and tribal leaders met for two days of talks in Islamabad. Their so-called "mini jirga" reiterated the desire of both countries to combat extremism and terrorism, and extended an olive branch to militants willing to lay down their arms.

However, such commitments have yet to translate into concrete actions and deliver tangible results.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.