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.