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

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Arbakai, the Salwishti, the Paltanai etc.

This paper by Mohammed Osman Tariq is very much worth reading (thx to Joshua Foust for providing a link to it here). Gordon Brown indicated towards the end of 2007 that one, perhaps, should be thinking of fielding arbakai forces (a mixture of traditional community police and COIN proxies, from a dreamworld perspecitve) in Helmand, after all it's such an Afghan tradition. This was partly what started the whole "let's arm the tribes against the crazies" discussion.
Tariq's paper gives much insight into what the institution of the arbakai actually is, in the small corner of Afghanistan where it works and exists, in the Loya Paktia area (it also works and exists in parts of Pakistan, right across the border).
Several points I'd highlight are (but you should read the paper for context):
  • One doesn't do well to think that there's only one Pashtunwali, and only one thing called arbakai, and that the latter is something that means the same to everybody making a reference to it. And whatever may resemble the arbakai may be called a different name in other parts of the country. In Kandahar it may be called Paltanai, while in the FATA in Pakistan "it is called Salwishti or Shalgoon." (p.3.)
  • Where arbakai do exist, even while it may be something welcome by the authorities, including the police, it's still a headache to tell how their existence could be reconciled with modern statehood and the supposedly necessary state monopoly over the use of force. So let's create some more arbakai?
  • As it was experienced in Kapisa, in Tagab district, creating an arbakai force with a top-down approach, on behalf of not the local people but someone else, is of dubious legitimacy and likely doesn't function (the paper deals with that case in more detail).
  • On the other hand, the arbakai forces that exist all by themselves, may work so legitimately and acceptedly, that their legitimate operation itself may outshine the state in the end, and turn the population against the state's potentially corrupt, weak local agents.
And finally here is a most interesting example of an arbakai force having formed outside the areas where the institution traditionally exists; it comes on pages 8 and 9:
"The Arbakai were used to maintain law and order in some Afghan refugee camps, including camps number 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the Haripur area of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. It is worth noting that the people who lived in these camps were not only people from the south-east. Indeed, the majority of people living in these camps were from other regions of the country, particularly from the northern and north-eastern regions. Respondents explained that when they were living in these refugee camps during the 1980s there was an increase in anti-social behaviour by youths, which affected security. Actions included students playing truant, the increased use of drugs, harassment of girls and women by teenage boys, and theft. Attempts to control security were initiated by various informal groups of people trying to stop such activities. Finally, the elders, teachers and religious scholars agreed to establish a committee called the ‘Reformation Committee or Council’ and under the supervision of this committee they established an Arbakai system. There were twenty five Arbakai from twenty five mosques who would attend daily to perform their duties under the committee. One of these twenty five was selected as Ameer to lead the group. The group was responsible for patrolling the area day and night. If they found somebody guilty, they handed him over to the committee, which was then responsible for making a decision about the appropriate punishment. The Arbakai had representatives from every cluster of families in a shared mosque. This eliminated the risk of personal rivalries interfering with community policing."
See what happened when an arbakai was badly needed, at a time when people coming from very different (tribal and other) backgrounds found themselves in a radically new, challenging and, in many ways, degrading environment?
Oops... the mosque communities had to play a role... the ulema was involved in mediation... all of that to reduce the perils of rivalries breaking up any arrangement. On a micro-scale, this reminds one of how the Taliban emerged. Bad news.
So, in the end, the truth is simply that one cannot find a one-fits-all sort of solution for Afghanistan. The insurgents had to show much flexibility in order to become able to operate in as many areas as they are able to nowadays. The same is needed on the counterinsurgent side. No surprises there, but this is something that a simplistic narrative of what happened in Iraq might make certain people forget.


Cannoneer No. 4 said...

Seems like the word arbakai is now so universally excoriated among internet Old Afghan Hands as a truly horrible idea that anybody who still thinks Regional Forces or Popular Forces are a way of getting more friendly boots on the ground needs a new term.

What's Pashto for Rough Tough Guys?

Americans like the arbakai because existing U. S. Military Embedded Training Teams and Police Mentoring Teams will probably be able to make something useful of them. There are no U. S. Department of Justice Judge and District Attorney Mentoring Teams in the hinterlands, are there?

Péter MARTON said...

1) There is really a need for other terms, as the thing is simply NOT called arbakai in some places, or it is simply NOT KNOWN as an institution.

2) More than that, in some of the places where they don't know what arbakai is, those stubborn Afghans are even reluctant to be very tribal these days (the larger part of Afghanistan).

3) Rough tough guys were always there. In some cases they defended schools from insurgents. They may have defended river crossings, on a payroll of ISAF forces in the area. They may have become Highway Police, allied with the Afghan government. They may have become regular police. And so on. This is not new, that's what you need to see in the first place. But these rough tough guys are really not arbakai, sorry to disappoint.

4) Rough tough guys whom we may celebrate to be "ours," may today, while they are our allies, be abusing others, giving us a bad name, or fighting other rough guys of ours, wreaking havoc. Then the next thing you notice is that they are not even ours any more.

So I'm sorry, but while I do respect the people within the American military's ranks who have come up with smart ideas in the past, many others there are like a 5-year-old with a hammer. Soon they see nails everywhere. This phenomenon is not restricted to the military, however. It is also valid regarding elite circles that were enamoured with the military's success in Iraq (I hope that one stays a success in 2010, 2011, 2012 etc., by the way).

All in all, I really appreciate being referred to as an internet Old Afghan Hand, but I don't find arbakai to be a horrible idea. What I find problematic is what Westerners want to create, selling it as arbakai. I'm trying to point out obvious pitfalls of those ideas, that the last couple of decades of Afghan history teaches us about.

I understand it that armies mainly want to fight, arm and train others, that's their preoccupation. But there's the ANA if they want to follow those instincts. We could do with a little patience here.

Cannoneer No. 4 said...

The Rough Tough Guys was intended to be a pun based on RuffPuff, GI slang for Vietname Regional Forces/Popular Forces.


Péter MARTON said...

I see, thanks for the link. I have to say my knowledge of the Vietnamese case is rather limited so I'll get back to study it.

beaglescout said...

The problem is in an assumption:
"it's still a headache to tell how their existence could be reconciled with modern statehood and the supposedly necessary state monopoly over the use of force."

There is no necessary state monopoly on the use of force. That is the road to warlordism or totalitarianism. Rather, law and the state are a mutual self defense pact among the armed and productive citizenry. The only necessary state monopoly is on public war. Even private war, as against brigands, pirates and terrorists, does not need to be performed by a state monopoly army. Private armies, such as the much derided Blackwater, are admirably poised for such tasks.

Think of the Arbakai as an Afghan Blackwater. Not totally trustworthy, but most are a few steps better than the Taliban and heroin-smuggling drug gangs.

Even if some Arbakai end up being bad guys, some others won't. Arming those who aren't is a good thing in Afghanistan. The bad guys will show themselves eventually, and smart tactics will allow national forces in cooperation with the good Arbakai to clean up areas infested with brigands. It won't turn around in an instant. But then the US Wild West wasn't cleaned up in a day, or a year, or even a decade. It took two hundred years to shape the American Wild West into a land of law abiding small towns. Afghan may be starting on just such a trip. And the Afghan equivalent of the Texas Rangers may be just the trick to make it happen.

Péter Marton said...

Armed and productive citizenry? I tried to point how that idea is bleeding from a couple of wounds. This new plan is something that already didn't work when it was tried without any Anbar ado about it. But who knows... perhaps yet another careful injection of guns will now do the trick for us. Perhaps it just wasn't tried enough times over there in Afghanistan, making the citizenry there more armed, and eventually more productive... Who am I to tell?