Afghanistan’s New Hope

Afghanistan FlagThe Economist reports on the introduction of the Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3). The US is hoping that what worked in Iraq can be applied to the very different problems in Afghanistan. They will be disappointed.

The problems in Afghanistan are rooted in a very different enemy, and the motivations of subscribing tribes to this new militia are decidedly different too. In addition, the support for these forces (although increasing in practical terms) is insufficient when compared to Iraq. The Taliban will not be defeated by passing the buck onto local militias.

In 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK first suggested beefing up the traditional ‘arbakai’, tribal militias that used to subsist in more remote parts of Afghanistan. The areas with most tribal loyalty have always opposed the Taliban, so it was hoped that this would allow the redeployment of resources elsewhere needed.

They are hoping for a repeat of the success story in Iraq where Sunni Muslims joined US forces and turned the tide of conflict. However, this ignores the chain of events. Local forces in Iraq turned against Al-Qaeda, due to mounting dissatisfaction with the collateral damage associated with the conflict and disagreement over their fanatical ideology. They were then essentially bribed into joining the US with promises of money and power.

There is not the same incentives at play in Iraq at all. In fact, these tribes just want to be left alone – as characterised by the origin of their opposition to the Taliban. The only thing that these tribes have in common with the fighters in Iraq is that their co-operation is a marriage of convenience. They will co-operate with the US as long as it is in their interests, making the strength of the new force unreliable.

In addition, the Taliban is mostly composed of locals rather than the foreign fighters of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. They are substantially more sensitive to local sentiment, so it can be expected that they will simply shift their tactics to appease the people in these areas – and redouble efforts to unite their opponents under the banner of liberating Afghanistan from foreign powers and an incompetent, corrupt government.

Afhganistan’s egalitarian tribal structure reduces the opportunities to exploit individual greed for power and influence. Of course, there is also no money to bribe them with. Lack of oil wealth will hinder efforts to pay these forces in a sufficient and timely manner. They will be poorly-paid, and probably supplement their income with bribery and corruption. This was the experience with the Afghan National Auxiliary Police in 2003.

The turn-around in Iraq came as heavy losses had been inflicted on Al-Qaeda between 2003 and 2006, and public support had universally turned against them. The contrast with Afghanistan could not be greater. The Sons of Iraq were also homogenous and well-funded. The poorly-paid, badly-equipped ‘arbakai’ of the AP3 will not pose any threat to the Taliban. Arming them will prove a mistake, and all we can do is hope that tribal rivalries do not rear their ugly head. Again.

© The Free Marketeer 2009

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