To Win in Afghanistan, it Is Time to Empower the People
Now that General Nicholson has described the war in Afghanistan is a stalemate, we clearly need a new strategy. Incremental improvements are not enough. We need to introduce new ideas, or, to echo Senator John McCain at the hearing, a “new strategy.”
It is likely that Gen. Nicholson is underestimating the scale of the problem, when he says the equilibrium is favoring the Afghan government. It is not. The government is losing ground steadily. As the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan said less than two weeks ago, control of the districts is melting away, with only about 63 percent under government control or influence, down 9 percent in only 14 months. And 63 percent is probably an overstatement.
America’s efforts in Afghanistan are hobbled because it ignores the most essential people in the equation; the Afghan people themselves, namely the Tribes and the young generation, which constitutes around 60% of the population. The US has pursued a government-centric approach that focuses too heavily on the formal structures of ministries and provincial governments, and too little on the tribes, or ‘qawms’, that make up the real Afghanistan.
Without harnessing the tribes, the war effort cannot harness the people.
Without winning over the people, the insurgents swim in a sea where the fish are coming increasingly under their sway. Now is the time to stop the rot.
Let history be our guide. The Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan for one simple reason: the tribes and the people rose up and forced them out. US assistance helped, but there was no answer to determined men who laid down their lives to destroy alien tanks by covering them in gasoline-soaked blankets, until finally the invader departed.
Simply put, the tribes are not now engaged. Indeed, many of them have men fighting on the other side. Tribal elders are not actively helping the government because the government does not actively seek their support and have lost their trust. With US help, the governments have attempted to improve the state structures that the Americans understand. Ones that do not consider the will of the people. It is past time to harness the power of the tribes. To do this, the US and the Afghan government, with the support of the Tribal Elders must:
– Convene a national Loya Jirga to enlist the support of the tribes, publicly. This must bring every tribe into the tent, even those who have too little reason to work with the government. We are all Afghans, and we will all work together
– Create tribal liaisons at all levels of the Afghan National Army and Police, down to battalion and district level.
– Create levies of tribal fighters who can assist the police and army, under the supervision of tribal elders but with close liaison with the security forces.
– Establish dialog centers in Taliban areas to reconcile the Afghan fighters of the Taliban ranks. Tribal outreach is enormously powerful, while government structures have repeatedly failed to reconcile large numbers of fighters.
We must take these and other steps immediately because we understand three things. The war is going badly and will get worse, no matter how many more Americans are sent to help the war effort. The Afghan government’s legitimacy does not begin to approach the power of the tribes. And finally, this is a psychological war, so persuasion, cooperation and national unity is inconceivably more powerful than appeals for support from a government that has shown itself too often to be weak, corrupt and unable to provide the most basics for its people.
We must act now, because time is slipping away. A large number of tribes have already signed onto these ideas, and are waiting to move forward to assist the Afghan government and the security forces. We need the new US strategy to help empower the tribes and the people so that finally the real Afghanistan, both rural and urban, can help win this war.
As a member of the Royal Family of Afghanistan I have seen the awesome power of our people once suitably roused. We must learn from our past history. I fear for our future if we continue to reinforce failure with more of the same.
Prince Ali Seraj is the nephew of King Amanullah. Since 2001, he has lectured widely in the US on Afghan policy, acted as the intermediary between NATO officers and tribal elders on numerous occasions, and is the chairman of the National Coalition for Dialogue with the Tribes of Afghanistan.