Concerned Local Afghans?

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The Washington Post reports that Afghan, British and US officials have implemented a new initiative designed to empower local tribes in southern Afghanistan and enable them to defend themselves against insurgents and criminals. Interestingly, the move is partly designed to provide a mechanism for integrating former-Taliban fighters, as well as to provide communities with a means of protecting themselves from predatory members of the Afghan National Police (ANP).

The controversial multimillion-dollar program, approved last month by President Hamid Karzai and a group of senior Afghan and foreign officials, will provide radios, phones and cash to village and tribal elders, who in turn agree to work with government forces and deny haven to insurgents. The program would also promote reconciliation by vetting and integrating former Taliban.

“You can call them night watchmen or home guards. They are not a formed militia, and there is no net increase in weapons. . . . It is simply creating an antibody to the Taliban in these communities,” a senior Western official said. “Taliban commanders and their fighters have come over to us and say they want to work with the government . . . so this is already happening.”

The initiative, called the Afghan Social Outreach Program, is partly a response to the troubled Afghan police force, which is widely viewed as predatory, officials said. It is part of a broader governance effort lead by Jelani Popal, head of the six-month-old Independent Directorate of Local Governance, which reports to Karzai. “There is a problem of corruption . . . warlordism and the drug mafia,” Popal said.

Popal has been assessing governors and district leaders, and, with Karzai’s authority, removing ineffective or criminal ones. He is also helping districts and provinces create their own development plans.

“The most important change in Afghanistan on the civilian side in 2007 was the removal of responsibility for local government from the flawed Ministry of Interior,” said U.S. Ambassador William Wood.

British Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles said, “We’ve got to do it the Afghan way . . . by empowering communities.”

Others warn the initiative could backfire. “If you begin to lean solely to local security solutions, you may inadvertently re-empower some old power brokers,” said Gen. Dan K. McNeill, head of the International Security Assistance Force.

The concerns expressed by McNeill reflect the difficulty common in foreign-led COIN operations where the domestic government lacks the ability to project force and establish its remit throughout the country – do you focus on enhancing central state control, possibly at the expense of alienating local communities and power structures, who may go over to the insurgents; or do you empower local communities in the fight against the insurgents, at the risk of further undermining the authority of the central state?

This is currently the subject of debate in Iraq, where many are concerned that the successful empowerment of local Sunni Awakening movements may in future undermine the ability of the Shia-dominated central government to rule effectively. It has also been the subject of an earlier post on this blog regarding local power structures in Afghanistan.

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One Response to “Concerned Local Afghans?”

  1. staillat Says:

    The dichotomy between Central Power vs Local Security raises another question. Gaining Legitimacy at the lowest levels is a critical issue in COIN, as well as at national and domestic levels. But, the difficulty to achieve legitimacy and large support at both levels is perhaps a clue to another problem in COIN. Are COIN and Stabilization ops like internal security matters, or are they foreign interventions (the French word “OPEX”, which means “Opérations Extérieures”, coins this paradox of Police ops -in the first sense, i.e. domestic affairs- led by Military means overseas)?. Furthermore, COIN ops are often depicted to be of critical issue for Western Powers that intervened to stabilize or legitimize a friendly government…
    In other words, Western intervention would be condemned to fail because of this structural difficulty and ambiguity: to appear as the sole security-provider at local levels without having any firm-grounded legitimacy to do so (it would also explain why Maliki’s government can be depicted by Sadr as a puppet for US)…Perhaps this issue is more critical than the federalism vs centralism one…
    Cordialement
    Stéphane TAILLAT
    PS: of course, it could be related to the lack of coherence in Western “strategic narrative”. Would it be better to appear as neocolonial powers that bears the burden to give Stability and Security in small and remote villages as well as in more crowded cities of the Third World? There would be sufficient reluctance, both in Western Societies and in Foreign societies at national or regional level (how could we achieve legitimacy in Muslims and Arab land at theses levels?)

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