The war in Afghanistan has taken a bizarre turn. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under foreign pressure to clean up corruption in his government, has apparently warned that he might just side with the Taliban instead. Meanwhile, down south major NATO combat operations continue to target Taliban strongholds. In the east, stretched-thin NATO troops struggle to build grassroots governance and security without much support from Karzai’s regime. Zach Rosenberg, War Is Boring’s youngest correspondent, heads into this morass to observe U.S. counter-insurgency operations up-close.
by ZACH ROSENBERG
In May, a group of irate villagers in Gizab, Daikundi Province, an area largely left alone by NATO forces, banded together to take on the local Taliban head first — and won. This is the local turnaround we’ve all been looking for: a spontaneous locally-inspired, -organized and -led revolt against the heavy hand of the Taliban. And people said Iraq’s Anbar Awakening couldn’t work in Afghanistan, the fools! Foreign government and military personnel greeted the news with unabashed optimism:
U.S. diplomats and military officials view the rebellion as a milestone in the nearly nine-year-long war. For the first time in this phase of the conflict, ordinary Afghans in the violence-racked south have risen on their own to reclaim territory under insurgent control.
It is a turnabout that U.S. and Afghan officials were not certain would ever occur. One U.S. commander called it “perhaps the most important thing that has happened in southern Afghanistan this year.
The important takeaway questions are, one, is this important, two, can this be replicated? The answer to both is “doubtful.”
For starters, Daikundi is an isolated, relatively unpopulated province, so unimportant to NATO even before population-centric counter-insurgency strategy took hold that it was essentially ignored (except by Special Forces, which is everywhere). Its main function for the Taliban, The Washington Post‘s Rajiv Chandrasekaran notes, is a transit and transfer point to bigger and better places. It’s a place where the Taliban doesn’t exert much force, but still more than the Afghan government or NATO.
This is not exactly a decisive overthrow either; despite an astounding temporary success, little guarantees the new “neighborhood watch” will be able to maintain a coherent, functional, well-armed institution should either the Taliban or Afghan government decide to assert dominance. And of course, events here are never as straightforward as they seem. Martine van Bijlert of the inestimable Afghanistan Analysts Network, whose post on the issue is really worth reading in full, fills in some context on what happened after the battle:
The appointments [of the revolters, to official power] represent a return to power by local khan families of two of the local Achekzai subtribes. This is not necessarily problematic, but the potential informality of the set-up (locals in local government, heading local forces) provides ample opportunity for another round of factionalism and exclusion. In April it was the Taliban that was kicked out by the population, but several years earlier the population rose up against a district governor that had crossed the line in terms of exploitative and intolerable behaviour. The fact that the Special Forces have decided that Lalay and his men are the “good guys,” just because they asked for their help, does not mean they will necessarily help win hearts and minds.
People from Gizab have complained for years about the neglect of their predicament. The message over the years has always been the same: It will be easy to get rid of the Taliban, there are not that many and the people will join in — but what happens after is what is important: who gets appointed, how will they behave and will the government pay attention to the needs of the people. That questions still looms over Gizab.
So, these are not necessarily good guys — maybe not the Taliban, but not necessarily friendly or cooperative, say nothing of desirable or accountable power brokers. The U.S. has an ongoing history of notoriously short sight in deciding who should have power, a situation that by some interpretations led more or less directly to the current one. Note that U.S. support for vicious and viciously corrupt warlords in Afghanistan continues to the present day, on the national as well as local levels. While supporting Lalay’s uprising for uprising’s sake seems to be a good idea from afar, some analysis must be carried out to answer questions, including: what effect might this new armed force have on area Pashtun clan relations? How might the local Hazara react? Just what role will this force have in official governance and security, and how can NATO ensure they don’t defect to a friendlier Taliban?
Leaving aside the issue of whether this should be replicated, can it be replicated? Daikundi is known as a province that has a relatively high level of appreciation for NATO troops and relatively low level of violence. Much of the population is Hazara, who remember their brutal treatment under the Taliban. Also note the lack of Afghan government presence in Gizab, which certainly played a role in the uprising — I can only speculate on how or to what extent, but it is a factor worth examining. Official Afghan government outposts tend to bring with them outright extortion, terrible corruption, and Taliban attacks — as Registan’s Christian Bleuer notes, basically the same as the Taliban, but without the school burning (you can bet that if the Taliban built a madrassa, the Afghan government would burn it). Should Gizab locals have reacted the same way to the same stimuli by Afghan government, which is not an unlikely scenario, they would have risked being labeled Taliban, in which case those heroic U.S. and Aussie Special Forces would kick in their doors and maybe shoot a few, definitively losing area hearts and minds.
As to replicating, the ever-snarky Bleuer breaks down the process:
1. Get Taliban to be jerks to locals.
2. Get Taliban to kill some locals.
3. Get Taliban to try to extort $24K from locals.
4. Get Taliban to kidnap some angry dude’s family.
5. Special Forces with ZZ Top beards.
6. Get locals to go crazy on Taliban.
7. EXECUTE EVERYBODY!!!
He goes on to speculate that we’re clearly about to win the war and become ludicrously rich and even introduce Gizab to thrash-metal, thereby neatly solving all Afghanistan-related problems forever, The End.
Encouraging such local uprisings is an official plank of America’s Afghanistan strategy. Not to say the Afghan government is effective at anything — note the recent Failed States Index, in which Afghanistan’s government ties for legitimacy with Somalia — but backing the rise of local power-brokers has a lot of potential negatives, among them the exact same thing that got us into this mess: backing local power-brokers at the expense of a coherent central government.