“U.S. training Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban”

 "… beginning in late February, a small detachment of U.S. Special Forces soldiers organized nearly two dozen villagers into an armed Afghan-style neighborhood watch group.

These days, the bazaar is thriving. The schoolhouse has reopened. People in the area have become confident enough to report Taliban activity to the village defense force and the police. As a consequence, insurgent attacks have nearly ceased and U.S. soldiers have not hit a single roadside bomb in the area in two months, according to the detachment.

"Everyone feels safer now," said Nasarullah, one of two gray-bearded tribal elders in charge of the village force. "Nobody worries about getting killed anymore."

The rapid and profound changes have generated excitement among top U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, fueling hope that such groups could reverse insurgent gains by providing the population a degree of protection that the police, the Afghan army and even international military forces have been unable to deliver.

But plans to expand the program have been stymied by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who fears the teams could turn into offensive militias, the kind that wreaked havoc on the country in the 1990s and prompted the rise of the Taliban. "This is playing with fire," an Afghan government official said. "These groups may bring us security today, but what happens tomorrow?"

Citing Karzai's objections, Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has blocked the release of money needed to broaden the initiative. He also has instructed State Department personnel in the country not to assist the effort until the Afghan government endorses it."  Chandrasekaran


The "big army" still hates the Green Berets.  Given a chance, this kind of strategy, backed by a smallish number of conventional troops as a mobile reserve could neuter the true Taliban, the irreducible hard core of that movement.  The rest of the fighters now sloppily lumped in with the true Taliban could either be won over or made to see that continuing to fight is useless.  But, no, the conventional generals would rather play COIN with a hundred thousands troops than let SF carry the day. There is something about Special Forces soldiers (Green Berets, not Delta counter-terrorist commandos) that is deeply threatening to the brass hats.  

Eickenberry sides with Karzai? What a surprise!  He is yet another conventional brass hat.

Karzai fears a countryside filled with villages armed and ready to fight to defend themselves against predatory Taliban or government.  What a surprise that is as well.

Someone will argue that this technique did not work in VN.  Observations: there are no NVA in Afghanistan, nor is there a Taliban "lobby" in the States.   pl


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22 Responses to “U.S. training Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban”

  1. FDRDemocrat says:

    Colonel –
    To be fair, there were three other concerns raised contra this village militia initiative:
    – the militias will feed the return of warlordism and feed tribal rivalries other regional powers, e.g. Pakistan ISI and Iran, etc. will respond
    by funding rival tribes
    – the US will have to keep paying them indefinitely, since the Afghan Government lacks its own resources; these groups, left unpaid, are likely to return to banditry/drug trade
    – the local militias will hinder long term plans to have the Afghan National Army have the monopoly of force
    Afghans have bad memories of these sorts of lashkars, since the Soviets used the same strategy and it basically turbo-charged tribal and ethnic conflicts. This sort of strategy was how the British held the frontier in the days of Gunga Din – hard to believe we are replicating that again now.
    Let’s say we run with this short-sighted approach and develop some solid local groups loyal to their US paymasters. Who wants to bet, once US troops draw down, these folks will not be left holding the bag? Chances are we end up with new Montagnards who in 5-6 years time will need resettling in Wisconsin.
    I hate to sound pessimistic. But I think State Department has the right approach if you want to have a government of some kind in Kabul. If that doesn’t work, these lashkars aren’t going to fill the void.

  2. RAISER William says:

    Let me see. You mean we (the Afghans) might have citizens protecting themselves? What a novel idea!

  3. mo says:

    Hmm, my gut reaction was what happens when the US is gone and can’t help these villagers out when the Taliban come back.
    On further reflection though, if you think about it, this is probably COIN at its sharpest. Because one thing that does not seem noted is this: While we often hear of Afgahn villagers “supporting” the Taliban, there doesn not seem much work to figre out the proportion of support to fear. these villagers (quite rightly) do not trust the US to protect them from the Taliban. As a result there is no way to gauge whether a village supports the Taliban out of ideology or fear.
    However, given the chance to protect themselves, you obviously get to see the real feelings.
    A kind of Afghan Awakening?
    Of course Karzai doesn’t want this. He has plans!

  4. Patrick Lang says:

    OK. By yuor lights there is no hope of sorting Afghanistan out and so we should just leave and as soon as possible. pl

  5. Arun says:

    View Afghanistan as a federation of valleys, and organize accordingly.

  6. Jonathan says:

    today’s post by Juan Cole is a relevant contrast to the story quoted.
    See http://www.juancole.com/2010/04/nato-troops-kill-mp-relative-anti-american-demonstrations-nangarhar-demand-us-withdrawal.html
    Two important points:
    1) summarized by headline “NATO Troops Kill MP Relative”
    2) The second important point concerns the results of a Pentagon study and is worth quoting at length:
    “Meanwhile, some statistics on Afghanistan from a new Pentagon study of the past 6 months, as reported by the NYT:
    NATO is operating in about 100 districts of the country (the vague equivalent of counties).
    Number of Afghans in 92 districts (assessed for their relationship to the Federal government) that actively support the government of Hamid Karzai: 0
    Number of districts out of 92 that are neutral toward the government: 44
    Number of districts sympathetic to the insurgency in March 2010: 48
    Number of districts that had been sympathetic to the insurgency in June, 2009: 33
    Increase in violent incidents from Feb. 2009 to March 2010: 87 percent.

  7. mo says:

    If the State dept. think that an Afghani state is going to achieve what the US and NATO couldnt then US forces are going to be there so long, you may as well declare it a part of the US….

  8. Twit says:

    Col Lang,
    I recently had the privilege of supporting this program in a small way, and there is a substantial amount of misinformation (cue Captain Renault in Casablanca) about it, much of which is repeated in this article.
    Most importantly, the program does NOT create or train “militias.” That is the myth. The truth is that it is helping to re-establish the traditional community security systems that have existed in Afghanistan for centuries (in southern Afghanistan most commonly called Arbakai). These systems are in essence an indigenous, grassroots form of collective policing. Afghans distinguish between the Arbakai and similar systems (whose members are volunteers and are honored for their service to community) versus militias and the ‘hired guns’ who serve warlords (who are paid for their services and who are not considered honorable).
    My opinion: On one hand you have a program that is showing results because it uses people (SF soldiers) who are capable of interacting in, learning about, and working within Afghan society as it actually exists. But then on the other hand, we see the quote in the article from the State Department official who opposes this program because “It runs counter to the goal of giving the state a monopoly of force.” To me, this poli-sci speak lays bare a naked utopianism and Western-centric myopia that, I think, is not only very hard for people like Eikenberry to break through, but also which Karzai & Co. have become very adept at exploiting for their own narrow advantage.

  9. Jimmy says:

    What’s so bad about warlords? They’re closer to their constituents, as opposed to Kabul. If everyone has a gun, the balance of terror minimizes warlord power abuses.
    Moreover, with semi-organized militia and identifiable divisions, warlords are fairly easy to control, in terms of minimizing wars. You can balance the warlords, whereas you cannot balance terrorists.
    Warlords are the first step of order out of the Hobbesian anarchy. Just like feudalism was the first step out of the chaos of Roman collapse.

  10. The Twisted Genius says:

    Amen, Colonel, amen. Why the “big army” still fears/hates the Green Berets is beyond me.
    This approach applies the best America has to offer to actually help local Afghanis get on with their lives as they see fit to do so. It’s not a big, flashy, resource intensive program that can further the career of any General Officer or feather the nest of contractors. It also requires too much patience to appeal to the empty suit/uniform set. It’s COIN designed in the team room and implemented man to man in the field rather than back in the Washington think tanks.
    What was formed was a locally equipped, locally run constabulary that has no ambitions beyond the local village. The idea of not paying them until they agreed to also take part in local building projects is pure genius. This is the antipathy of warlordism. The whole concept reminds me of two things… Hizbollah and John Robb’s ideas of decentralized resilient communities. Actually there’s probably enough here for all the current “powers that be” to fear and hate.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Col. Lang summarizes FDR Democrat’s position as amounting to:
    “there is no hope of sorting Afghanistan out and so we should just leave and as soon as possible.”
    This is a reasonable position with considerable historical precedent – e.g. the English and the Soviets ended up “just leaving”.
    The burden of the argument would be to show why “this time it is different” and we should not forget the other question that has been posed here: if we are successful – by whatever standard of success you like – what strategic benefit is there for us in that success.

  12. FDRDemocrat says:

    I did not say there was no hope. But foreign-paid militias are a stop-gap, not a strategy. If the “brass-hats” have their orthodoxies, so do the Green Berets. These ideas seem more like the second coming of Lawrence of Arabia…the notion that the best and brightest can cut through any problem by sheer ingenuity and derring-do, if the old fogies will get out of the way.
    The gist here seems to be ignore Karzai, go around him, build local power centers. If we take this route, we will probably need to give Karzai the Ngo Dinh Diem treatment at some point. And we saw how well that worked.

  13. kao_hsien_chih says:

    It’s not just Karzai who has plans…so does everyone else, including US Gov’t and various factions therein. Nobody just wants to “win” by beating the Taliban. They want to create some set of outcomes they like–and a bunch of armed peasants get in the way of them all.
    I have to confess that this does make just giving up and leaving Afghanistan ASAP attractive, save for some special ops types to take out potential threats to US security here and there…

  14. Adam L Silverman says:

    Twit: The State Department attitude that you referenced from the article is a major issue. I saw this repeatedly in Iraq from State Department folks and have heard it a few times from others since my deployment ended in regards to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The argument is always that the Iraqi tribes or the traditional Afghan kinship arrangements (mostly based on qawm – social identities, but also on some tribe like structures like the khels) are just that: traditional. And the Iraqis and the Afghans are going to have to let them become sort of historic vestiges. I had one of the governance guys in Iraq actually tell me the Iraqi tribes were going to have to get used to their tribes becoming like Native American tribes. I asked him if we shouldn’t be organizing pow wows and reservations? He had no reply (though I suspect he wanted to curse me out). I then told him that the Iraqi tribes, despite Saddam moving them around and manipulating them, survived his attempts to destroy them, Bakrs attempts, and everyone else’s back to Faisal and the British, the Ottomans before them, and the Persians before them. As the tribes had survived all of that, they were certainly going to survive a decade or less of us! Again: no answer.
    The problem here is too few foreign service officers, even fewer of them that no anything about the areas they’re currently detailed in, and no one having the intention or desire to institutionalize the approach that these Green Berets have taken. From my understanding the arbakai aren’t really that reliable, but if these soldiers have found a way to leverage them and make it work, then it needs to be considered elsewhere. It most likely won’t be as State is officially in charge and those folks don’t seem to get it, even though my understanding was that was what they were supposed to be trained to get. Silly me!

  15. nmsalamon says:

    Mr. Lang:
    Your note to FDR… is correct, for when the USA is running out of help for the unmployed [see below], then the USA does not have funds of wars 10- 000 miles away.
    Fundless people have only recourse to crime to feed themselves… we do not want rise in crime!
    The coin is dropping for the wall street engineered fiasco. Even Mr.
    Frank’s deficit committee talks about cutback to DoD.

  16. FDRDemocrat says:

    The US/NATO effort stands or falls on establishing a government that can stand on its own. If we cannot do that, we best leave. If we cannot do that, we should not create village militias. We will just be using these people. And when we inevitably leave they will be left holding the bag.

  17. Patrick Lang says:

    I think that is absolute nonsense, enraptured with the political science drivel that sees the world as a stage upon which the drama of unitary nation building is to be played out as an evolutionary process for humanity. get over whatever professor sold you that. pl

  18. FDRDemocrat says:

    Colonel –
    That’s a bit of a caricature of what I wrote. There is a wide gulf between the theology of nation building and the idea that you need a functioning government. I am no neocon – but I did point out why the lashkar approach has drawbacks, arguments which no one has yet convincingly rebutted. We are faced with a set of bad choices to choose from. It is not cut and dried.
    And the State Department bashing gets tiresome, whether its coming from right or left. They did not create this steaming pile. I know the DOD community loves to beat on the striped pants set, but the Pentagon is quick to hand things off when their schemes start heading south.

  19. Patrick Lang says:

    FDR democrat
    “the Pentagon is quick to hand things off when their schemes start heading south”
    When was that? pl

  20. FDRDemocrat says:

    Pursuant to Rumsfeldian best-case doctrine, General Franks went into Iraq in 2003 with a plan resting on the idea that civlian USG and UN follow on would handle everything that didn’t need to get shot or blown up. When that proved to be a pipe dream, the striped pants were made the scapegoats. A tome thicker than two bibles had been prepared and provided to the Bush Administration prior to the invasion by USG civilian development experts showing how complicated and difficult it would be to get Iraq up and running again. It was largely ignored. The Rumsfeld/Feith Pentagon was going to handle things their way, and they did.
    The victory laps on cable TV after the collapse of the Afghan Taliban evinced the same attitude: game-over, we win, now let’s let the UN and the goody two-shoes NGO’s come in now and fix things. Whoops, the UN just got blown to hell. Guess we need a plan B.
    And what happens to these tribal self-defense forces when we draw down in 2011? Let’s be optimistic, let’s say we keep things going for a while, paying them and arming them. Maybe we can keep it up for five years. Maybe as long as the seventeen years the Israelis kept the SLA going? Does anyone believe that?
    The big army is rightly accused of rigidity at times. And the State Department has its problems too. But the other option here, Special Ops run lashkars, is a tactic masquerading as a strategy. Without a plausible political end-game, these people are being used and will be thrown to the wolves when said use is over.

  21. Patrick Lang says:

    The military invaded Iraq with the plan inflicted on them by the civilian side of the Department of Defense acting in conjunction with the rest of the civilian government elected by the people of the US.
    Generals Franks and McKiernan had very little control over the aspects of the plan that you mention and had a hard time getting enough troops for the operation.
    I was in Kuwait and at the ground force headquarters at Camp Doha a month before the war. I was there the night of Powell’s foolish speech at the UN. I talked to the staff at length about the aspects of the plan that you mention and they all knew it was a mistake. There was nothing they could do about it.
    If you think that the State Department has “bailed out” anything in Iraq yuo are mistaken. State lacks the ability to administer their little embassies well, musch less a country. pl

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