In his State of the Union Address, President Obama reiterated his support for the increasingly contentious US presence in Afghanistan, even in the face of simmering domestic issues like health care and the economy. Beneath this official show of support, though, recent news articles indicate a potential behind-the-scenes debate concerning the nature of US activities in that country. At the risk of being overdramatic, the fate of US efforts to stabilize Afghanistan may rest on the outcome of this bureaucratic dispute. One of the options being presented, however--a decentralized strategy of tribal engagement--has the potential to be both effective and politically viable, and deserves further attention.
A week or so ago, the Washington Post ran an article on US outreach to tribal leaders in Afghanistan. The story discussed the work of Major Jim Gant, a Green Beret, and his efforts to assist tribal networks with both "local disputes" and resistance against Taliban and AQ elements. Major Gant's work has generated a great amount of attention among military officials, who see in it a means of mobilizing the Afghan people to contribute to their own defense. Interestingly, a large Pashtun tribe recently agreed to fight the Taliban in return for US aid.
A more recent story, however--also in the Post--discussed resistance to such efforts among civilian US policymakers. According to the story, Karl Eikenberry--the US Ambassador in Afghanistan--was hesitant to expand US military cooperation with tribal networks, due to a preference to work with a central Afghan government. It was unclear if this is the same program discussed in the earlier article, although there are significant parallels between the two stories. Moreover, US officials are also debating negotiating with Taliban leaders, as well as engagement with lower level Taliban fighters, to reintegrate them into Afghan society.
The debate involves two drastically different approaches to situations like Afghanistan. The State Department's approach involves building up central governmental institutions, focusing US efforts on establishing a (hopefully democratic) state. The approach that seems to be favored by the military is a decentralized strategy of enhancing local capabilities, even if it is at the expense of the central government. The issue of outreach to the Taliban, in turn, rests uncomfortably between the two.
The State Department's strategy is admittedly appealing at first glance. The existence of a strong centralized government would allow Afghanistan to function normally in the international arena and better provide for the security and welfare of its citizens. It would also indicate the beneficial effects of international intervention into conflict-ridden areas.
Likewise, there is much to be wary of with the tribal engagement plan. The first is the cost; the plan may lead to higher casualties, since more troops will be in harm's way. Also, the loyalty of tribal militias may be suspect, and they could use defect to the Taliban or advance their own agendas. Finally, US policymakers must guard themselves against inadvertently taking sides in Afghan politics.
That being said, waiting for a central Afghan government to form may be even more problematic. As Eikenberry himself has warned, Afghan President Hamid Karzai may not be an "adequate strategic partner." Similar concerns have been expressed in regard to the flawed elections in August, in which Karzai was been accused of fraud. The recent postponement of parliamentary elections--while wise--further indicates the troubled state of the Afghan government.
The decentralized tribal engagement strategy may not be ideal, but it is probably the most effective option available. As the strategy would make use of Special Forces teams to work with tribal leaders, it may not require the massive amount of troops an Iraq-style surge would call for. Moreover, by enhancing the capability of local actors, it could minimize the risk of creating Afghan institutions dependent on the US presence. Finally, it can both tie in well with efforts to reintegrate low-level Taliban militants and obviate the need to work with Taliban leaders, as tribal engagement would establish an alternative set of actors with whom the United States could work.
Progressives would do well to pay attention to our developing Afghanistan strategy. The tribal engagement approach may be both effective in stabilizing Afghanistan and complementary to broader progressive goals. This strategy could lay the groundwork for the 2011 troop reduction the President has called for, while also satisfying the progressive desire to ensure the Afghan people live in a stable and independent society. It would also echo earlier Democratic calls for an emphasis on the use of Special Forces, demonstrating Democrats' understanding of national security issues. Like everything in international politics, there is no option in Afghanistan that is simultaneously easy, morally-sound, and politically-viable. This strategy, however, may be the closest thing to such an option.
Also posted at The Moderate Voice.