x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hit the Taliban, befriend the tribes

On the eve of a major offensive in Helmand, Hamida Ghafour analyses a change of strategy for Americans in Afghanistan.

US marines prepare for an attack on the town of Marjah, which is gearing up to be the most closely watched test of the shift in American strategy in Afghanistan.
US marines prepare for an attack on the town of Marjah, which is gearing up to be the most closely watched test of the shift in American strategy in Afghanistan.

It rained in Helmand earlier this week and a Taliban spokesman interpreted it as a sign of God's favour, which would allow them to easily bury crude explosives in the wet earth around the town of Marjah for the coming armies of the infidels.

American marine units and Afghan soldiers have surrounded the outskirts of the town. Potential escape routes are sealed off. To psyche themselves up for the fight, for weeks the marines wore T-shirts printed with the slogan "Just Do Marja". The battle of Marjah is imminent and it is gearing up to be the biggest and most closely watched test of the shift in American strategy in Afghanistan which emphasises civilian protection.

As Brig Gen Larry Nicholson, the marine commander in southern Afghanistan, has been telling the throngs of assembled reporters in Helmand: "In counterinsurgency people are the prize." It is a lesson the veteran of the Anbar and Fallujah campaigns in Iraq has emphasised to his soldiers. He has also drunk gallons of tea with Helmand's tribal elders over the past few weeks, promising that his priority will be the safety of civilians and urging residents to leave the town.

The Taliban and their allies are believed to have 1,000 fighters in the town, which they have rigged with booby traps. They are vastly outnumbered by the 15,000 American, British and Afghan troops who surround them. Taking Marjah from the insurgents will not be as difficult as what will happen afterwards. To prepare for the post-battle phase, Haneef Atmar, the Afghan interior minister held a shura (council) of tribal elders on Thursday in Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah, which lies about 30km from Marjah, and asked for the tribes' assistance.

The support of the sceptical Pashtun tribes will be key to keeping the insurgents out and allowing the central government in. Marjah is a centre of opium production and bomb-making factories hidden behind high, cracked-mud walls. The tribal leaders had no reason to trust any delegation from Kabul, let alone the Americans. The old governor of Helmand, Sher Muhammed Akhundzada, was such a notorious drug trafficker that three tonnes of opium sap was found in his compound the day he was finally fired. He was from the dominant Alizai tribe and bullied the smaller ones - some of them wanted a slice of the lucrative drug economy.

It was a grievance the Taliban successfully exploited. The insurgents promised to help the smaller tribes stand up to the powerful ones in exchange for fighters and safe houses. This is the Byzantine world of Pashtun politics, a sluggish mud of rivalries and vendettas that the Americans now find themselves plodding through in their new strategy to stabilise Afghanistan. The switch to a focus on local tribes contrasts to the days when Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, flew into Kabul for a few hours to thank the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and "your team for the work you are doing".

"We're all trying to get a better grasp," said a senior state department official, speaking from Washington. "The one approach is an elementary-school understanding of capture, kill, and the other is a PhD level understanding of, well, if we really want to win we have to do it in co-operation with the people. We have to know the people, we have to talk to them. Shocking revelation." The Americans are figuring out that Afghanistan has never been ruled successfully from the centre.

The 19th-century emir, Abdur Rahman Khan, filled his pockets daily with a fresh loaf of bread so he could leave without delay if there were rumours of an uprising in his kingdom. The 40-year era of peace during the reign of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who was overthrown in 1973, was possible because he nurtured allegiances with fickle tribal leaders, sending gifts of cash or sheep to sweeten alliances.

"Key ministers in the cabinet have told the Americans and the Europeans that this is how it used to work. To rule Afghanistan this is how we need to go," said a senior Afghan interior ministry official. "But they think we need to think modern; new democracy, new systems. Afghanistan is a country which our tribal leaders must be taken into confidence." For years tribal delegations from far-flung villages spent US$20 (Dh73), a small fortune, to hire minibuses and travel to Kabul's presidential palace where they would ask for security or roads on behalf of their clans. Most returned home in disappointment.

They also seethed as western expatriates ignored them during meetings in favour of the colourful warlords who invited aid workers to hot tub parties. Now, there has been a slow awakening in the upper echelons of the American military and intelligence establishment to the importance of the tribes. It is an uphill battle. In 2007, the CIA station chief in Kabul, among other senior officials, was told by Americans with field experience that Afghan tribal dynamics must be understood to win the war. The advice was rebuffed. The strategy would continue to focus on killing high-profile insurgent leaders. This focus on simply killing insurgents remains in many areas.

The reversal in policy began between January and October 2008 in the Pentagon about how to turn around the failing war. The shift came right from the top with Gen David Petraeus, the head of US central command. Gen Stanley McChrystal, the head of US and Nato forces, recognised what many Afghans had been saying - that the insurgency was deliberating eroding traditional tribal structures by eliminating local leaders who did not support the Taliban. A campaign of assassination had been underway for years.

Major Gen Michael Flynn, the deputy chief of staff of intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), issued a blunt report last December that American forces were clueless about local culture. Gen Nicholson who is leading his troops in Marjah adheres to the localised approach. "His attitude is, 'If I'm in Marjah, I'm going to find out what's important to Marjah, and I don't care as much about what is going on in Lashkar Gah. I'm going to help this guy in this district get what he needs'. He's impressive." said the state department source from Washington.

This is why the Shinwari Pact generated some excitement. On January 21, 170 elders from clans and sub-tribes of the powerful Shinwari tribe in eastern Nangahar province signed a deal among themselves to fight the Taliban and not grow or refine opium. Each family would provide a male of fighting age to defend their homes in case of Taliban attack. Those who refused to obey would have their house burnt down - an ancient Pashtun punishment - and fined $23,000.

"We didn't even know the pact was going to happen," said Major TG Taylor, a public affairs officer for the US Task Force Mountain Warrior based in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar. "But I was like wow, this could work. Afghans are creating their own solutions and we're going to do everything we can to assist them." The Americans rewarded the Shinwaris with $1 million fund to build infrastructure in their isolated villages and 37 small projects worth $200,000. The deal followed two of Gen Petraeus's 26 guidelines for winning counterinsurgency: prepare for and exploit opportunities and employ money as a weapon system.

The province is a transit point for smuggling insurgents and bombs. But details of why the Shinwaris turned against the Taliban remain unclear. Last summer an influential leader, Malik Niyaz, and his clan fought with Taliban-affiliated insurgents over a dispute. Another tribal leader whose son was killed by the Taliban joined Malik Niyaz's side. "They have taken a courageous stand, publicly denouncing the insurgents and as a result clearly the insurgents would like to either break them up or kill some of them," said Dante Paradiso, the state department's senior civilian representative at Task Force Mountain Warrior.

Three other tribes in eastern Afghanistan have since approached the Americans with ideas for a similar pact. There were obvious echoes of the Anbar Awakening, where Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, in Iraq, repulsed by al Qa'eda's brutality, offered to switch sides. "I'm not going to speak to matters of Iraq. It's a very specific situation here," said Mr Paradiso. "But there is a renewed focus on the district level. What we want to do is make sure in those districts, the Afghan government has resources it needs to provide basic governance structures, justice and basic services."

The rural Pashtun south has its own systems of tribal governance and law and its people do not want western influences, wrote Professor Thomas Johnson, a respected American academic who runs the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies in California. "But they do not want Taliban, which espouses an alien and intolerant form of Islam and goes against the grain of traditional respect for elders and decision by consensus. Re-empowering the village councils of elders and restoring their community leadership is the only way to re-create the traditional check against the powerful political network of rural mullahs, who have been radicalised by the Taliban."

At the tribal shura in Lashkar Gah on Thursday, some of the elders expressed fears of retaliation by the Taliban if US forces left as they had done after other battles. "Yes, we want this operation in our area but do not leave, as you have in other areas and let the Taliban come back," one of the leaders said.

* With an additional report by Associated Press