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December 3, 2008
Afghans fear militia rule as U.S. reaches out to tribes


Tribal leaders in Afghanistan.

The U.S.military may begin reaching out to tribal militias for assistance in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda as it reviews its strategy in Afghanistan.

Alex Strick and Felix Kuehn are researchers living in Kandahar and the co-founders of AfghanWire. They write at From the Frontline about the problems of this strategy and Afghan sentiment towards militias.

Panicked Solutions

Special agents from America, Germany and Pakistan are sent to a zoo in Afghanistan to track down some missing rabbits. The western agents start looking around, surveying the field, setting up field offices and establishing contacts. The Pakistani agent goes straight to a zebra.

A few days later, the others still haven’t been able to find a rabbit, so they go over to the Pakistani agent to see how he’s getting along. When they come closer they see him beating the zebra with a big pole, shouting at the top of his lungs: “SAY I’M A RABBIT! SAY I’M A RABBIT!”

This joke was told by a highly respected tribal elder in Kandahar last week at the end of a long and frustrating conversation about American plans to engage the tribes in Afghanistan and their apparent decision to support the (re-)formation of local militias.

It would have been funnier were the situation down here not so critical. Daily NATO bombing throughout the region, occasional suicide attacks within the city, pervasive and unashamed corruption, rising food and fuel prices, and an increasingly brutal campaign of assassinations are just some of the features of everyday life for the average Kandahari.

There is no feeling that the central government in Kabul projects a legitimate source of authority down here either. The reputation of that government – and foreign powers by association – has been muddied over the past 7 years. The early years of US raids and night abductions in Kandahar are still not forgotten; massive and unfiltered corruption has permeated to all levels of the government, often working from top-down and bottom-up at the same time; involvement of these government figures in the drug business goes on at a very high level; the central authorities are too weak to implement their decisions (and are perceived as such), and the parliament functions only as a shadow of itself; there has been no media campaign of any sophistication or that is able to respond with the speed that the Taliban themselves have proved capable; there is a concomitant lack of visible signs of development money – and much vanished in submissions back to western countries anyway; and there has been an effective, sophisticated and prioritized Taliban information and media campaign noting all of the above.

Despite this situation, on Tuesday Afghan parliamentarians emphatically spoke out against President Karzai’s own plan to arm local tribes against the Taliban drawn up by the Tribal Commission. MPs argued that the Afghan army and police force should be strengthened instead.

The authors’ own incidental experience talking to people from all kinds of backgrounds in Kandahar also offers overwhelming evidence that people fear the return of the militias. “If the militia comes, they will do everything,” explained one friend. “They will rape my boys and my wife. There will be no more government. Now we have maybe thirty percent law in the city. With the militia there will be none. It will be the end.”

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user keith stanski under a Creative Commons license.

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