As strategists and commentators dissect President Obama’s West Point speech, the conversation all too often gets stuck on troop levels. What is missing is a strategic assessment and a willingness to transfer America’s hard-won lessons learned in Iraq, especially in the Al Anbar province, to Afghanistan.
Strategy first. Afghanistan’s future stability depends upon three interlocking requirements: a Pashtun head of state who enjoys the support of other key ethnic groups, aligning the tribal leadership with the central government and the ability to deny enemy forces any safe haven in Afghanistan or Pakistan. With Abdullah Abdullah’s gracious concession in the disputed election, Afghanistan has gained a legitimate Pashtun leader in Harmid Karzai and a vigorous loyal opposition in Dr. Abdullah. To address the other two strategic requirements (tribes and safe havens), we need to learn from Iraq’s Al Anbar Awakening movement that shows how to leverage tribal forces as stabilizers and deny sanctuary to insurgents.
Al Anbar is Iraq’s largest province and, for many years, one of its deadliest. A sunburned triangle roughly the size of Connecticut pressed against Syrian and Saudi borders, Al Anbar was a terrorist paradise. The long, unpatrolled borders allowed fighters to flee into foreign territory if American forces came calling and return just as easily. Anbari settlements offered insurgents places to rest, regroup, resupply and train as militants exploited tribal loyalties that spanned borders. Moreover, American and allied forces were spread thinly over a vast, inhospitable terrain that they could never control. Very much like Afghanistan today.
Then, a change in strategy transformed Al Anbar. Al Qaeda overplayed its hand, by harming civilians and usurping the role of local sheikhs. Soon, tribal leaders saw an overlap between their needs and the goals of American forces. Deals were struck. With limited help from the U.S., Anbari tribes attacked and defeated insurgents and supplied valuable intelligence that led to capture of insurgent leaders across Iraq. The victorious tribes were then hired to build schools, roads and infrastructure, so that they did not devolve into another armed group at odds with the central government.
The first lesson from Al Anbar is therefore the need to look beyond national borders, because they matter less than tribal boundaries. Tribes span the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. Quetta, the city in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding, is functionally an Afghan city – the majority of its population was either born in Afghanistan or raised with tribal identity linked to homelands there. Merchants, refugees and terrorists routinely cross the border to buy, sell or kill. That porous border could be an advantage: Afghan tribes could work with their relatives in Pakistan to track and confront terrorists. Using tribes that operate on both sides of the border worked well in Al Anbar – and could work in Afghanistan-Pakistan.
We must also admit that local knowledge (which tribes possess in abundance) almost always trumps foreign and formal knowledge. U.S. satellites can provide good images of rooftops while the tribes often know what’s going on inside the heads of tribal chiefs. Both kinds of knowledge are necessary. As one former military intelligence officer deeply involved with the Awakening puts it: “the whole tribal culture is built upon intelligence acquisition and knowing more about the other group than they do about you.”
Applying the Al Anbar experience to Afghanistan is, of course, not a simple cut and paste job. There are significant differences of culture, history and leadership. In Iraq the homogeneity of Sunni tribes in Al Anbar made it easier for interests to coalesce once insurgents had overstayed their welcome. In Afghanistan, things are more complex. Pashtuns are only the largest among a multiplicity of ethnic and tribal groups, making it harder to bring local interests in sync. Former U.S. Task Force commanders and intelligence officers tell us that Al Qaeda in Iraq was not “real AQ” but rather a cheap facsimile of mostly secular former Ba’athists. In Afghanistan, religion plays a stronger role among the Islamists. This will require U.S. forces in Afghanistan to use more subtle information operations so as to undermine the extremists’ version of the Muslim faith.
The biggest difficulty is that the Al Anbar of Afghanistan is not in Afghanistan at all, but in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. This means the U.S. would need Pakistan’s cooperation as selected special forces units forge alliances with tribal leaders to drive out the Taliban and related forces. That is not as unlikely as it sounds. The Taliban and related Islamist fighters are an active threat to Islamabad.
Here is how it could work. While Americans supply training, arms, intelligence and air support, the tribes fight to free their homelands. It is likely that tribal leaders would welcome the aid. Pakistani polls show that the predominantly Arab fighters have worn out their welcome. A year ago, only 34% of Pakistanis had a negative view of Al Qaeda according to a Pew poll. Now that number stands at 61%. Pakistani concern regarding extremism in the country has increased to a remarkable 79%. More than two-thirds of people living in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province and tribal regions, consider “al Qaeda and the Taliban to be enemy number one,” according to a survey funded by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy in Pakistan.
The U.S. could begin by canvassing the tribes. Key tribal leaders in North and South Waziristan could be contacted through their Afghan relatives and meet with U.S. officials in Afghanistan. If the tribes agree, a few dozen U.S. operators who could help coordinate tribal operations against the Taliban in Pakistan – just as a handful of paramilitary officers worked alongside the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban in 2001. Talking to Pakistan’s tribal leaders (without preconditions) is the first step.
The largest obstacle to implementing a new strategy in Afghanistan resides in Washington. Policy makers fret about crossing national borders, while the Taliban does so daily, and find engaging the tribes to be unpleasant. Washington will have to admit that in Afghanistan’s borders and its South, sovereignty lies with the tribes and not Kabul. This is how it has always been. Isn’t it time the tribes sided with the U.S. instead of the Taliban?
Richard Miniter has written several bestselling books on terrorism. Dr. Sebestyén Gorka is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and Military Affairs Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Washington. This essay was previously published in the National Post.