What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Is it really easier to look at Afghanistan as though it would be like Iraq?

US secretary of defense Robert Gates is in Afghanistan, and apparently the Pentagon is contemplating the arming of Afghan tribes in the south of the country, since they found the occasion of the visit a good one to voice such plans.
That's bottom-up empowerment as some enthusiastically catch the buzzword of the day and willingly subscribe to the use of a ridiculous euphemism for arming a lot of men (just think about this from a gender perspective). I can understand the psychology behind this, of course. For a while Iraq was looking like the Sunni areas there would have been headed towards a vintage Afghanistan 1997 scenario with their future consisting of hardly anything else but jihadi acrobats jumping burning wheels, climbing ropes and shooting up cars for practice, while the areas of mixed population seemed to be headed towards a hundred little Srebrenicas. But then the Sunni tribes and local insurgent forces "surprisingly" vetoed that vision as they made it clear they perhaps have a more complex picture of what they would like to see in Iraq's future, and the ethnic cleansing went ahead in a, hm, well, better-than-expected fashion. Well, it certainly wasn't "cultured," "intelligent" ethnic cleansing, with people just calmly moving out of the areas where they shouldn't have been on the basis of confessional affiliation. But the body count could have been worse, as most seemed to agree, and of course perceptions matter a lot.
Oh yes, and there was the surge as well, which did provide more security, and the U.S. military leadership has indeed got better at dealing with the challenge of counterinsurgency.
But to think that arming the tribes in Anbar and other places would be an integral part of state-building is rather mistaken. "Bottom-up empowerment" is, as I noted in the past, a bit like the opposite of state-building - we don't need to think in terms of a false dichotomy as though state-building would be "top-down empowerment," but the sort of bottom-up empowerment we're talking about just doesn't fit the picture. And so we're yet to see if a Lebanon-type or any other similarly (at least) palatable outcome can be found in Iraq in the wake of all this. A good pro argument in favour of what happened in Iraq, to underscore that it did have to take place, is of course that 2006 was so incredibly ugly that something extreme had to be done in the short run.
With regards to Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported on Monday:
"Gates also will discuss the possibility of arming local tribes in the Afghan south to fight the Taliban, exporting a strategy used by the U.S. military in Iraq of arming local Sunni groups to fight al Qaeda.
That effort in Iraq has been credited with making Anbar and other former insurgent strongholds hostile to al Qaeda."
"The tribal initiative would begin with a British pilot project in Helmand province and would be broadly similar to a U.S. military drive in Iraq that has recruited thousands of local fighters -- including tribesmen and former insurgents -- to police their neighborhoods, the officials said."
So the point is that I tend to be critical of this. In Afghanistan, there have always been local actors supporting the international military intervention that were used as local partners-in-arms. It all started with the light footprint approach, as you may remember, and so dealing with some strong local figures was never avoidable. So I'm not saying the situation would be so tremendously new, that's not the point I'm making (even if the WP articles tend to present the picture as though this all would be something completely new). My problem rather is that 1) this is not a move towards state-building, and with the factional fighting it is likely to generate it is likely to make Afghanistan drift towards a fourth consecutive decade of internal warfare, and 2) that it's just a substitute policy for reinforcing local tribal allies' areas with enough international forces, which would be on the one hand more compatible with the goal of state-building and on the other also more effective against the Taliban.
If you've read what I posted yesterday, you may remember that this, discussed here, is the option of giving up the "chimerical" fight. As WP reports, "the plan reflects a concern among senior U.S. officials that coalition forces have relied too much on the central government to build security forces, an approach they say runs counter to both tribal culture and the need for community policing." But I feel that in this case this shouldn't necessarily happen like this, as there clearly could be a better strategy in place and more convenient and sufficient means should be provided to match that strategy.
And have I failed to mention what this plan might mean for opium production? Well, I promise I'll come back to this in another post. (I need to think this through properly, to be honest, but I can imagine some negative implications for the long run right now.)
Now I'd like to know of course where the British pilot project is set to start. With the Pirzai clan in Musa Qala district? Just a guess, but it's that sort of guess which makes me wish the people behind this calculated well on the basis of what they know that I don't.

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