The Arbaki can secure Afghanistan better than the US

When US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, is a 19th century tribal solution the only option?

Afghan members of the Loya Jirga speak before the meeting outside its premises in Kabul [AFP]

Newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s move to resurrect the case against Kabul Bank last month was commendable; it demonstrated his resolve to tackle the administrative corruption that has crippled the Kabul government since 2001. Still, for the average Afghan, the case involving the theft of nearly $1bn dollars from the country’s first private bank back in 2010 won’t make much of a difference.

According to recent polls, for the vast majority of Afghans, security above all remains the top priority – followed by food, employment, fuel and the price of basic necessities. Without security, none of the other needs can be met.

US President Barack Obama’s plan to withdraw US troops by the end of 2016, has encouraged both Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to ramp up their activities inside Afghanistan. A case in point is the southeastern province of Helmand, where a number of districts have fallen to Taliban incursions.

By now it is clear that Afghanistan’s security woes cannot be addressed by the Afghan National Army. Unlike the conscript military of yesteryear, when the forces were well equipped with all the necessary hardware, such as tanks, helicopters, jets, armoured personnel vehicles, rockets, etc, today’s national army is barely equipped to meet the threat posed by the enemy, widely reported to be supported and financed by neighbouring countries.

An Afghan solution

The solution to this major problem lies in restoring the ancient tribal security system – known as Arbaki – to assist the national army in defending the country, especially the borders, against enemy encroachment and infiltration. In recent weeks, there have been reports that the US is studying local power structures with the possible objective of reviving a version of this traditional Afghan model of security.

Contrary to the beliefs of the international forces, the Arbaki is not a militia force.

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While a militia is made up of individuals from different walks of life, not properly vetted, the members of the Arbaki are tribesmen hailing from well identified villages and specific tribes.

The efficacy of the Arbaki system is time-tested. Throughout the centuries, the tribes of Afghanistan have sacrificed wealth for freedom. They have always banded together to ward off enemies. It is also a fact that in times of peace, the tribes have bickered among each other. As British writer Rudyard Kipling famously said, when Afghans have no one else to fight, “they fight among themselves”.

Today, as western solutions fail in Afghanistan, a growing number of Afghans are convinced that peace and security can only be achieved through Afghan solutions. Peace can be achieved in Afghanistan, but the tribes must be engaged and empowered to assist the Afghan National Army.

In keeping with Afghan tradition, a jirga (assembly of elders) must be convened. There, the wisemen must agree to activate the Arbaki.

If implemented properly, this is the right path to securing the borders of Afghanistan. A time limit must be set for the activities of the Arbaki force. They could operate for six months or until security in the area is achieved, whichever comes last.

In consultation with the tribes, the government should launch a media campaign to inform the people about this system and show how Taliban rhetoric is politically motivated and designed outside of Afghanistan – and outside of the religion of Islam. The government should make it clear that the expansion of the Taliban is driven by coercion, not popularity.

Taliban rhetoric

The Taliban must be challenged on Islam. They must be shown to have violated Islamic principles and the Pashtun honour code, known as Pashtunwali. The government must engender debate and sow doubt.

The pillar of their rhetoric is that they are engaged in a war against a non-Islamic occupying force; this must be challenged and destroyed. The government must stress that the only invaders are those agitators infiltrating from neighbouring countries, intent on destabilising and destroying Afghanistan. They should also mount a media campaign identifying suicide bombers (mostly non-Afghan nationals) and highlighting the hardship caused to innocent civilians.

The Taliban must be challenged on Islam. They must be shown to have violated Islamic principles and the Pashtun honour code, known as Pashtunwali. The government must engender debate and sow doubt.

The government needs solid intelligence on the enemy, but it also needs reliable information on the tribes. Tribal mapping will be important, as it will identify leading personalities and their historical relationships. Afghanistan’s past is relevant and it is kept alive by oral traditions.

The government can use oral histories to reinforce traditional values of loyalty, support right over wrong and expose the Taliban as outsiders.

Following the Taliban’s own example, the government should also make better use of TV, radio and social media. It should show those who are standing on the sidelines the true murderous face of the Taliban.

A system of border security similar to the Arbaki has already been enacted by the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to guard their borders.

Once the government has established a ring of Arbaki security guards around Afghanistan’s borders, the National Army and the National Police can maintain security within the nation.

While the security plan is being put into effect, the government must tackle the shortage of staple products in the country. The staple food among the population is potatoes and onions, both of which are sold to Afghans by Pakistanis at more than 10 times the price.

In the past, Afghanistan was an agricultural nation. The government can revive this agro-economy by setting up cooperative farms on government lands and resettle Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran on these farms. They can assign each family with land and housing, and furnish them with seeds, fertiliser, farming equipment and when needed, expertise to assist those who have been away from farming due to long years of migration.

This is the proper way for the new government to attack the major problems and show the people that it is serious about tackling issues that will ease their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Prince Ali Seraj is the president of the National Coalition for Dialogue with the Tribes of Afghanistan.