All Politics Is Tribal
Obama's Afghanistan strategy should team our soldiers with their militias.
Though it doesn't claim as much, Dexter Filkins' article in Sunday's New York Times, headlined "Afghan Militias Battle Taliban with Aid of U.S.," may offer a clue to where President Barack Obama's strategic review of the war is going.
Or let's put it this way: If, in the coming days, Obama does decide to deepen America's involvement in Afghanistan, and if his strategy bears no resemblance to the approach Filkins describes, it is almost certain to fail.
Filkins, one of the most intrepid war correspondents, reports that special-operations forces have begun to help anti-Taliban militias in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the insurgents are concentrated. These militias have risen up spontaneously in certain tribal groups, but U.S. commanders hope that they can use the example of these revolts "to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland."
The interest, even excitement, in this development stems from two sources. First, it is reminiscent of the Anbar Awakening in 2006-07, when Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq formed alliances with U.S. forces—whom the Sunnis had been shooting just months earlier—to beat back the bigger threat of al-Qaida.
Second, it has drawn high-level attention to a 45-page paper by Army Maj. Jim Gant, the former team leader of a special-ops detachment stationed in Konar province. The paper, called "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan," recounts his experiences with organizing "tribal engagement teams" to help local fighters beat back the Taliban—and it spells out a plan to replicate these teams across the country.
One measure of the interest in the paper is that Maj. Gant, who was about to be redeployed to Iraq, has been sent back to Afghanistan instead to help set up more of these teams.
The premise of his paper is that Afghanistan "has never had a strong central government and never will." Rather, its society and power structure are, and always will be, built around tribes—and any U.S. or NATO effort to defeat the Taliban must be built around tribes, as well.
The United States' approach of the last seven years—focusing on Kabul and the buildup of Afghanistan's national army and police force—is wrongheaded and doomed. The tribal approach also has many risks. But the case for it, Gant argues, is this: "Nothing else will work."
There are signs that Obama has been mulling over something like Gant's strategy. At one of the seven meetings Obama has held with his national security advisers (the ninth, and perhaps final, session takes place tonight), he asked for a breakdown of which Afghan provinces could provide their own defense, which need our help, and to what degree. He also told ABC-TV's Jake Tapper, in an interview earlier this month, that he and his advisers were focusing on "not just a national government in Kabul but provincial government actors that have legitimacy in the right now."
A tribe-centered strategy may appeal to Obama in several ways. First, it keeps the Afghan people, not American occupiers, at the center of the operation. The U.S. soldiers live alongside the tribes, build trust, train them, supply them, gather intelligence from them, and fight with them. We are supporting players, not the lead.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.