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A Sunni Awakening: Not So Easy in Afghanistan

5 minute read
Jason Motlagh / Jalalabad

It was hailed as a game-changing breakthrough in the U.S. military’s effort to rally Afghan tribes against the Taliban-led insurgency. In late January, elders of the Shinwari, an influential Pashtun tribe in eastern Nangarhar province, pledged to confront militants operating in their territory and punish anyone who cooperated with them. Within weeks, however, they turned their guns on each other: a land dispute between two subclans erupted into a firefight that has left 13 people dead and another 35 injured. It has cast doubt over a U.S. strategy that would have funneled $1 million in development aid to the tribal leaders involved.

Since then, anti-Taliban patrols by tribesmen have reportedly ground to a halt over fears they could worsen interclan tensions. Meanwhile, Taliban and other militants continue to move freely in some tribal areas. Only $200,000 of the promised U.S. funds have been dispensed, with no word on what’s next.

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American military planners were in part motivated by a program used in Iraq to woo tribal leaders from the Sunni Muslim minority with cash and support. Al-Qaeda-driven violence plummeted there after they joined forces in what came to be known as the Sunni awakening. As coalition forces extended their offensive across Afghanistan’s southern provinces, it was hoped the partnership with the Shinwari could serve as a template for other volatile areas. After all, Shinwari elders representing some 400,000 people had independently raised their own militia last summer to combat militants and smugglers trespassing on their territory, killing a key Taliban commander and putting foot soldiers on the run. This caught the attention of U.S. officers.

Critics of the strategy counter that using tribal militias to fight the Taliban in the name of strengthening the government is destined to do the opposite in a place where loyalties are notoriously fluid. For perspective, they note how U.S. support of mujahedin factions fighting against the Soviet army in the 1980s degenerated into a civil war when their common enemy was ousted. Tens of thousands of Afghans died in that conflict, which ultimately spawned the Taliban, a ragtag movement bent on bringing order to the chaos. Since they were kicked out of power, the militants have tried with some success to undermine tribal networks with threats, assassinations and appeals to wayward young men. Then there is the complex reality of those structures: the Shinwari dispute shows how subclan politics can trump any façade of tribal unity.

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The Afghan government was never consulted about the project, a decision that raised some eyebrows. The U.S. military insists Kabul was involved as a broker between military officers and Shinwari elders, and the local governor may also have tried to patch up the current round of subclan fighting. But the Karzai regime is a problematic partner for the U.S. According to Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and author of Afghanistan: Revolution Unending, the main argument against these kinds of ad-hoc deals is that the most capable tribal militias have almost no faith in a Karzai-led regime seen as both weak and thoroughly corrupted. “There is no reliable Afghan partner,” he says. “Most tribes are afraid to work with the Afghan government.” Case in point: when the agreement was announced, one Shinwari elder was quoted as saying, “We are doing this for ourselves, and ourselves only. We have absolutely no faith in the Afghan government to do anything for us. We don’t trust them at all.”

Despite the setback, the U.S. military stands by the approach. Major T.G. Taylor, a public-affairs officer, says the military “[continues] to engage leaders through traditional Afghan power structures in order to assist us separating insurgents from the population, connecting the population to their government and transforming the government to best serve its people.” Indeed, the arrangement with the Shinwari is but one of a raft of similar initiatives that enlist tribes and local militias.

Again, there is a problem with partners. In the northern province of Kunduz, where the insurgency has made steady gains, former warlords who fought in the civil war have re-armed in recent months to take on the Taliban. Some have been credited with improving security in their areas. But several militias based in Pashtun-dominated districts now stand accused of looting and raping and assorted crimes that have angered locals, to the militants’ advantage. Still, a senior U.S. military officer who has commanded forces in Afghanistan says generalizations about the strategy are pointless, and that it all comes down to the quality of local leadership in the absence of capable state security forces. “If [working with tribal militias] turns out to be effective,” he says, “it’s worth it.”

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