Incredibly, President Barack Obama’s in-depth Afghanistan review is underplaying the evident peril that arming unruly warlords empowers them to use American war techniques to scuttle his agenda and settle mutual scores with more lethal force instead .
It is fast-forwarding two great dangers. First, it is ensuring that Afghanistan can have no central government in Kabul capable of enforcing discipline on the entire country through monopoly of arms and police work. Local warlords armed by America and flush with drug money will not kowtow to Kabul. They have not done so for centuries and will not start now, especially after acquiring modern weapons learning how to fight with them.
The second danger is that warlords in every district will turn to use of force to dominate their localities and expand power through subjugation of neighbors. In such societies, having greater prestige and power than your peers is more important than ideals like uniting the nation to benefit ordinary people. Successfully settling scores builds honor, prestige and power within the clan.
A third danger lurks beneath these two. So far, a cause of anti-NATO insurgency is violent irritation at the presence of outsiders who are upsetting the balances of power, locality by locality. But widespread rebellion is creeping forward as NATO’s predators cause more civilian deaths. Insurgents are also again starting to obtain safe haven among disgruntled civilians.
This is allowing the Taliban to trickle back into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s badlands. In reply, the US has begun to arm local militias and plans to speed up this venture. Shortsightedly, it is digging a hole from which it may not be able to emerge for decades.
American-style counter-insurgency requires high technology. The US-friendly warlords are waiting with open arms to get high-tech materiel and specialized war-fighting knowledge that will take them to the next level. More useful than anything else to Afghan warlords are the transfer of equipment and training to fight at night and at a distance with stealth. They do not want to modernize society but would certainly like to modernize their fighting capabilities.
The current policy analyses by President Obama suggest that the US will rally local warlords across Afghanistan with arms, bribes and promises of local power. The goal is to get them to expunge Al Qaeda and, where possible, anti-NATO Taliban forces from their neighborhoods.
At the same time, large cities will be turned into safe havens free of Taliban or Jihadist influences. In all of this, the US and NATO want to give leadership to the Afghan national military and police. The self-serving hope is that love of democracy and national unity will persuade Afghan soldiers to abandon clan affiliations and fight to kill insurgents from their own clans.
The argument is that a similar policy allowed US forces to withdraw gracefully from the most hostile zones in Iraq. There, few warlords armed, trained and enriched by the US have so far turned on one another to settle old scores or restarted systematic fighting across the Sunni-Shia divide. Iraqi areas previously infested with foreign Al Qaeda terrorists are now clear. Proponents see that as proof that the policy of arming and enabling local warlords to defend their territories deserves replication in Afghanistan.
But this a potentially grievous mistake that misunderstands how social interactions work in rural and traditional Afghanistan. The majority in South, Central and East Afghanistan are Pashtuns but they are far from being homogeneous. Even within a clan or extended family there is no homogeneity although all are Pashtuns. Their enmities are mostly against one another.
Similar fragmentation exists among the Tajiks, Hazaras and Turkmen. For the moment, their warlords are backing the US keeping a lid on mutual hostilities because they hate Pashtuns in general and the Taliban in particular. They have little love for democracy or national unity. Their warlords want power and the only power meaningful to them is over their own traditional clan area.
Unlike Iraq’s tribal social structure, where blood feuds were less common, Afghanistan’s tribal customs place the inviolable duty on children, family and close relatives to avenge insults and, certainly, killings. “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” are imperatives of both religion and custom cutting across generations.
To obtain weapons, money and training, all will promise whatever America wants. Then, they will turn on one another when NATO is no longer able to police inter-clan peace or its eyes are averted.