Worsening Situation in Afghanistan Spurring New Strategies

KABUL – Western officials are increasingly turning to new strategies in an effort to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat the insurgency here, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. The various initiatives – from negotiating with the Taliban to arming tribal militias – have differing degrees of support from Afghans.

Violence has reached record levels this year, and Afghanistan is now considered a deadlier battlefield than Iraq. Insurgents are able to operate openly in areas close to the capital, and the central government’s popularity is at the lowest point in its history. The situation is prompting a number of strategy reviews in Washington as the U.S. prepares for possible strategic shifts after the next president takes office.

Some officials are quietly considering a plan to arm tribal groups, in a move reminiscent of the American strategy in Iraq that is credited with decreasing violence there. "We are seriously looking into using tribes and local communities to provide security," says an American intelligence officer with the international forces.

"It will not work in the same way as Anbar" – the province in Iraq where the U.S. first tried the strategy of arming tribal militias – "but instead will be part of a general community-based approach," he says. He adds that this will include an effort to strengthen local governance as well as entrusting tribes to manage the security in their areas.

The idea is winning support in some sections of the Afghan government. A senatorial commission recently announced that it is developing a proposal for the increased role of arbakais, traditional Pashtun tribal self-defense forces, under government command.

Many say, however, that the plan is fraught with difficulties and dangers.The plan may only be effective in parts of the country, such as the southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika that border Pakistan. In these areas, where the tribal structure remains strong and the influence of the central government is weak, local tribes have already established small arbakais on their own. However, in other parts of the country, such as Kandahar and Helmand, war, Taliban influence, and opium cultivation have eroded tribal independence. "My information, from studying Afghan history, is that arbakai works only in Paktia, Khost, and the southern portion of Paktika, and it’s not likely to work beyond those geographic locations," Gen. Dan McNeil, head of the NATO forces in the country, told reporters earlier this year.

A bigger concern is the arming of non-government entities in a country rife with warlords and with a violent history of armed militias. Habibullah Rafeh, political analyst with the Afghanistan Academy of the Sciences, says that such military solutions may not bring peace, as they rely on the distribution of more weapons.

Ramazan Amon, pushcart vendor in Kabul, remembers the last time militias and warlords roamed Afghanistan freely. "They fired rockets at my home, destroying it," he says, referring to battles during the country’s civil war in the mid-Nineties.

"Many of my neighbors were killed," he continues. "Our family had to flee our home. I don’t want more weapons and militias – it will only cause more fighting."

While the U.S. mulls such options, policymakers in Washington and sections of the Afghan government are also considering negotiations with the Taliban. Last month, Kabul invited former Taliban figures to Saudi Arabia to explore future peace talks with the insurgency. Although the talks cannot be construed as peace negotiations since the former Taliban members were not representatives of the insurgency, some Afghan and Western officials hope that this will be the start of a negotiated settlement between the warring factions.

The prospect of Taliban figures entering the government has some women’s groups and moderates worried about a return to fundamentalist rule. "If the Taliban returns, we will revert back to feudalism," says Sheila Samimi, manager of the Afghan Women’s Network, a local NGO.

However, most Afghans say that a negotiated settlement with the insurgency may be the country’s only chance for peace. "We are against Barack Obama’s policy of sending more troops," says Fatana Gailani of the Afghanistan Women’s Council, another local NGO. "We want reconciliation with the Taliban through a loya jirga," or grand tribal assembly.

"If talks with the Taliban can bring peace, I’ll support it," says Shaferazeen, a painter who lost his leg to a rocket attack during the warlord civil war of the Nineties.

Current policy in Washington is opposed to negotiations with the most senior leadership of the insurgency, whom they have blacklisted.

The Afghan government, on the other hand, has said that it is willing to negotiate with all insurgents, including Mullah Omar. "Those Afghans that are blacklisted must be removed," says Bakhtar Aminzai, Afghan senator and a leading advocate of negotiations.

While some insurgent leaders, such as guerrilla commander Jalahuddin Haqqani, enjoy a close relationship with al-Qaeda, other sections, such as Mullah Omar’s circle, may be more independent. The American intelligence official with the international forces says that there are tensions between al-Qaeda and Mullah Omar’s circle, and other analysts say that the U.S. is looking to exploit these differences and isolate al-Qaeda. However, others contend that a split between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is not likely. The Taliban is still not completely ideologically and financially independent from al-Qaeda, says Waliullah Rahmani of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

Mullah Omar refused to hand over bin Laden until the very last minute in 2001, so it seems unlikely that he would do so now, Rahmani adds.

Talk of major differences between al-Qaeda and the Taliban may just be rumors or the maneuverings of various international governments in an attempt to engineer a split, Rahmani says.