Tribalizing Afghanistan

Posted by sepoy on October 14, 2009 · 4 mins read

Ahmad Shayeq Qassem, "Afghanistan: Imperatives of Stability Misperceived". Iranian Studies, 42:2, 247-274.

Similarly, while the Afghan government appeared keen to disarm the predo- minantly non-Pushtun armed groups in the north, northeast and west of the country, it actually distributed more arms to the mainly Pushtun eastern and southern provinces in an effort to institute what it calls “Afghanistan National Auxiliary Police” (ANAP). Rearmament of militias in these regions was carried out even when there were genuine concerns that the Taliban and drug lords were benefiting from it.
Whatever the Afghan government's justification for the institution of the ANAP, the reality is that such tribal militias were also formed by previous Afghan governments including the last Afghan monarchy (1930s — 60s), Daoud's Republic (1973—78), and the communist regime (1978—92). Past experience does not generate much optimism about their effectiveness as agents of stability. Pushtun tribal militias (Lashkars) were used by King Mohammad Nadir Shah in the early 1930s to suppress the non-Pushtuns in northern Afghanistan, thereby leaving a long trail of interethnic tensions that continue to haunt the col- lective memory of the northern communities to this day. Tribal Lashkars were also used by Daoud to destabilize Pakistan, the legacy of which poisoned the two countries' relations. Similarly the communist regime used the Uzbek (Dostum) and Pushtun (Esmat Muslim and Jabar Qahraman) ethnic militias to suppress its opponents in various parts of Afghanistan during the 1980s. The institution of tribal militias under the euphemism ANAP has been criticized not only because it undermines the reconstruction of legitimate security institutions, but also because it leads to more interethnic tensions in the country. Certainly it has not been helpful in creating trust in the government, which is a necessary requisite for successful transition to political stability in all post-conflict countries.


The process of rebuilding the Afghan state has wrongly presumed that a strong unitary state was the most likely guarantee of political stability in the future. Such a view was based on the fear of the regional power-holders outside the direct authority of the government in the wake of the Taliban regime's collapse. However, by constraining the constitutional avenues for pol- itical participation of popular political actors at the regional level, the Afghan state has an inbuilt potential for political instability. It has to maintain expensive security forces in order to contain the regional power-holders, who may other- wise resort to unconstitutional, and therefore destabilizing, ways of translating their local popularity into political power. Even if the state were to succeed in maintaining the required level of security apparatus, containing the regional power-holders will involve the use of force, or a constant threat of the use of force, by it. A political system that relies mainly on its coercive capacity to exact compliance from its citizens is not a stable political system.

An analysis of the situation in Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban regime cannot ignore the evident failure of the ethno-nationalist expatriate lea- dership which, as a bloc, had been generally perceived to be the main vehicle of political stability. Although the expatriate leadership is by no means united on all issues, its reliance on the military, political and economic support of the West as the principal means of preserving political power distinguishes it from the indigenous leadership. While they have effectively reduced the power of the indigenous leadership, their eagerness to manipulate international goodwill in support of internal political rivalries has contributed to instability in the country. The Afghan government deliberately underestimated the threat of the Taliban, causing a good amount of international focus to be reoriented to a relatively smaller challenge posed by the influence of regional power-holders. This allowed the Taliban to make a strong comeback and pose a more serious challenge to the stability of the new Afghan political system as a whole.


Qalandar | October 15, 2009

Far from trying to move beyond "tribalization", the governments of the region (i.e. even outside Afghanistan) are trying to replicate this model, in Pakistan's NWFP, and in India's Chattisgarh. In both countries the notion that counter-insurgency can be usefully "outsourced" has gained ground. The bloody results in Chattisgarh have perhaps dulled enthusiasm for extending this "model" to other states, but it is a scandal that it is being perpetuated in so many places...

AIG | October 15, 2009

Hitchens has a good idea. what's Musharraf up to? Obama should anoint him king of Af-Pak.

fpfj | October 26, 2009

I argue that the militias are less 'tribal' and more group of men from same ethnic group. There is a difference. Tribes have a hierarchy, set of customs and order. For example, one can speak to a tribal elder and can be assured that the rest of the tribe will usually follow. I believe that the civil war has effectively broken down the tribes and what we have now are ethnic-based militias. This means that the U.S. and her allies are re-arming groups of people that are less likely to promote political stability. This is more like re-arming the mafia, then actually re-arming tribes (also, they were never dis-armed in the first place).

Conrad Barwa | October 28, 2009

Q - I dunno, the salwa judum strategy did a pretty good job of cleaving the adivasi support base of the Naxalites in Chattisgarh and stopped its expansion. Of course it was bloody but since most of those being killed were adivasis, peasants or low ranking policemen this would hardly be deemed a high cost by the Indian state. This strategy was used to great effect to suppress quasi-ethno-nationalist type revolts by the British during the Mau Mau; where the turning point is accepted to be the arming and creation of the Home Guard, that split Kikiyu society into opposing factions.

Qalandar | October 29, 2009

I don't deny the "efficacy", my point was that the bloody nature has dulled enthusiasm for extending the model to other states -- so far we haven't seen it outside Chattisgarh, and I have no doubt that those who thought this was a great idea in the first place would likely not have thought of it as chattisgarh-only "solution". i.e., even granting that the state machinery deems certain sorts of costs more acceptable than others, that does not preclude the notion that the associated political costs can nevertheless rise to a high enough level as to make wider extension of the course of action more difficult...

Conrad Barwa | October 29, 2009

I don't deny the “efficacy”, my point was that the bloody nature has dulled enthusiasm for extending the model to other states — so far we haven't seen it outside Chattisgarh Where would it be applicable though, outside Chattisgarh? There aren't isolated, concentrated adivasi communities in any other state that are the basis for Naxalite activity on this scale - the only exception I can think of is Jharkhand and their the advasis are split along different political lines and the number of dikus is much higher and more settled than in Chattisgarh. Orissa is another partial exception, at least the interior belt is, but there isn't the same level of Naxalite activity here. Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are possible cases but I think the adivasi community is more integrated in those states and the Naxalites depend a lot more on landless labourers and the struggle over land as well as caste than they do on ethnic identity. This solution only works when applied to an insurgency that has its social base amongst an adivasi population; other methods will be used for different situations.

Qalandar | October 29, 2009

Apart from the examples you mentioned, it could also be applied in parts of Maharashtra -- not exactly in its Chattisgarh contours, but remember that something not very unlike this was used in the late 1990s in Kashmir too (they called it village defense committees or some such thing), and is being used in a very different social context (i.e. a very different "tribal" ethos) in Pakistan's NWFP as well. So the fact that the shoe doesn't fit precisely wouldn't dissuade the state machinery if it was otherwise convinced. My reading is that had some of the states you mention been enthusiastic about the Salwa Judum approach, some variant of it would have been applied (at the time the approach was launched, it was not sold as a Chattisgarh-only approach IMO); but that the massive internal displacement in Chattisgarh and other forms of violence have dulled enthusiasm for it. At least partly for this reason, the new "approach" seems to be to federalize the whole thing (using the usual excuses, such as that the states aren't well-equipped to tackle the security issues, etc. etc. One can't forget that four of the six relevant states aren't Congress-ruled, and somehow state-level powerlessness wasn't used much as an excuse when it was a Congress government in Andhra that was doing the armed counter-insurgency). Anyways, we're straying off the main point: i.e., even if you disagree with my interpretation, you seem to be disagreeing in the direction of my original point -- that experience with this sort of thing elsewhere in the sub-continent shows that this is not a good idea. And, given (among others) the already highly militarized Pashtun zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a highly fluid and chaotic situation, I can't think of a worse area for one to implement this sort of policy in. i.e., I don't think it will do "a pretty good job of cleaving the ... support base" in the NWFP: on the Pakistani side, that support base is already somewhat cleaved as between insurgents and the very large number of Pashtuns in the Pakistani army itself; that hasn't stopped or slowed the entrenchment of the insurgency, and adding an extra layer wouldn't help. Stated differently, for the reasons fpfj notes above, the NWFP is a LESS "traditional" society today (because of what has happened over the last three decades -- with the exception of the Great Lakes region, where else has the social fabric been rent so badly and for so long as here?) than even the likes of the "tribal" societies of Chattisgarh etc...

Conrad Barwa | October 30, 2009

Good points Q, I think the difference is though here that the implementation of such a strategy would destroy the social unity and bonds of the political community where it would be implemented - imo, this was a desirable aim of state strategy in India because autonomous political adivasi communities are hugely marginalised from the mainstream and are often viewed as threats that need to be neutralised or destroyed at little political cost to the rest of lowland society. The ethnic otherness and cultural separation of many adivasi communities makes this a viable strategy in India. For the NWFP, it isn't because tribal society there is much more cohesive and stronger, has a longer tradition of armed resistance and because of the common factor of Islam they can count on political support and mobilisation from other parts of Pakistani society as well as on a shared religious tradition. Adivasi appeals on this basis, as seen in the most recent mining case involving Vedanta, just fall on deaf ears.