No peace in Afghanistan without tribal participation

Coalition forces’ fundamental error was their failure to engage the tribes and reinstate military conscription.

The future of a peaceful Afghanistan is in the hands of the tribes of Afghanistan, argues Ali Seraj [AFP]

It has been more than 10 years since the start of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, when 47 nations came to “defend” Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and Taliban. Now they are leaving, claiming to have achieved success in defeating the terrorists. 

As they plan their departure – much as the Soviet Union did in 1988 – I would like to put forward the following questions:

Since the enemy was defeated in less than three weeks, why did the West opt for the militarisation of Afghanistan, instead of economic development?

Why, for the first time since the Second World War, did so many countries commit their troops to a small country like Afghanistan? If it was to get rid of the terrorists, then why are they leaving before the job is done?

Why were thousands of professional Afghan military officers fired? Certainly not all of them were communists or terrorists. And why was military conscription not renewed? In the past, when conscription was still in effect and I served my country as a tank commander, we had hundreds of thousands of military personnel at any given time.

Why did they opt for a paid army (ANA) and a paid police force (ANP) when Afghanistan cannot afford an army of mercenaries  or police? Who is going to foot the $4.1 billion annual bill necessary to maintain this army and for how long after the departure of Western troops?

Why was Afghanistan’s agricultural base not renewed? The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has said that the country has the potential to achieve food security for its population. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had a thriving agro-economy, with more than three-quarters of the population involved in farming. Back then, we were an exporter of agricultural products; now we are importers of food. 

Why was Afghanistan’s industrial base, which employed thousands of workers, not reactivated? Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had six cement factories, several textile factories, tanning factories, sugar, cotton, pre-fabricated housing, fruit packing, etc. But today we even import the wood for our coffins and the shrouds for the dead.

Rather than apply the billions of dollars pledged in aid toward projects that might have benefitted the Afghan people, these funds were delayed, misappropriated or misspent, with little or no effect in creating much-needed jobs.

Finally, why did these well-intentioned Western nations attempt to impose their system of governance and culture upon the Afghan people, most of whom still live in the 16thcentury?

Why did these well-intentioned Western nations attempt to impose their system of governance and culture upon the Afghan people, most of whom still live in the 16th century?

One of the fundamental causes for the failure of the coalition forces in Afghanistan has been their disregard for the importance of the 45 million Pashtun tribesmen who live in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Historically, these tribes have preserved the peace and the integrity of the nation, as was demonstrated during the three Anglo-Afghan wars of 1842, 1879, 1920 and the 10-year-war with the Soviet army. During these conflicts, it was the tribes that fought and won the wars, not the Afghan National Army. 

In his account of the first Anglo-Afghan War (published in 1878), Mowbray Walter Morris writes how an Anglo-Indian force of 4,500 was “annihilated by Afghan tribesmen”, and concludes: “And so the English army left secure on the throne of Afghanistan the dynasty they had spent so many millions of treasure and so many lives to overthrow.”

Mercenary military force

Yet, instead of seeking the cooperation of the tribes and, at the same time, reinstituting military conscription, the coalition opted for the creation of the Afghan National Army (ANA) based on the American military system. Paid by the US government, this army has become a mercenary military force. As the government of Afghanistan cannot afford to pay ANA salaries, unless the US is willing to shoulder the cost for the foreseeable future, there will be no Afghan army or police.

As the President of the National Coalition for Dialogue with the Tribes of Afghanistan, and as a member of a family that ruled Afghanistan for almost two centuries, I have had the privilege of working with and learning a great deal about the Afghan psyche from the various tribes.

The reason why some would argue that US General David Petraeus achieved a measure of success in Iraq, after many failed attempts, was because he sought the cooperation of the Sunni elders in defending the country against al-Qaida. It was with the help and cooperation of the Sunni tribes that al-Qaeda was defeated.

In 2012, Peter Bergen, CNN’s National Security Analyst, wrote: “The tribal fighters of the Awakening movement ended up on the American payroll in the ‘Sons of Iraq’ program, which by the spring of 2009 had grown to around 100,000 men. Many of those men had once been shooting at Americans; now they were shooting at al-Qaeda.”

Wrong message

The same strategy should have been used in Afghanistan. On various occasions, NATO commanders were advised to initiate the ARBAKI (Tribal fighters) against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but to no avail. The leaders of the Shinwari Tribe, near the Pakistan border, were ready to join forces with ISAF troops in 2010. Their offer was refused and so were subsequent offers from many other tribes, because the ISAF hierarchy believed the method would create problems for the Afghan government, or so I was told.

If the coalition forces have lost ground against the Taliban, it is not because the Taliban are a formidable fighting force, but because the coalition continuously sends the wrong message; a message of weakness, indecision and disarray.

Meanwhile, the Taliban attempts to fuel the perception that the coalition forces are an anti-Islamic occupying power. They also cite civilian killings by US drones. But according to UN figures, the insurgents were responsible for 76 percent of civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2009, 75 percent in 2010 and 80 percent in 2011.

Neverthless, support for the coalition forces has markedly declined while Taliban influence and control has increased. As a result, increasingly large areas of the country are now outside government control. Today, less than half the population supports the coalition forces.

The future of a peaceful Afghanistan is in the hands of the tribes of Afghanistan. They are the warriors. They hate the Taliban as much as anyone else, but they stand on the sidelines, helpless. They want to fight the militants, but cannot do so without NATO approval. Should they attempt to take the matter into their own hands, they would be mistaken for Taliban fighters and be killed.

Peace will not come to Afghanistan without the cooperation of the tribes. They can and will defend their motherland, only if the Western forces would realise that the tribal people as the saviours of Afghanistan rather than the destroyers.

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