Does defending a village mean undermining Karzai?
An April 27 Washington Post article discussed a small victory for an Afghan village defending itself against Taliban intimidation. Two dozen Afghan men, trained by a small detachment of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, organized their own neighborhood watch and now patrol their village near Kandahar. Taliban fighters, who recently swaggered through the village and who seeded the village's dirt road with bombs, haven't been active there in months.
Although many top U.S. military officials in Afghanistan are eager to expand such local defense efforts, President Hamid Karzai has rejected any initiatives not under the authority of his Interior Ministry. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, supports Karzai's decision and has blocked U.S. funding for the military's plans. According to the article, the establishment in Kabul fears that the organization of local militias will bring about the return of warlords, whose marauding led to the Taliban takeover in the 1990s.
On March 24-25, the Small Wars Foundation (the parent organization of Small Wars Journal) co-sponsored a workshop featuring a wide range of experts to study "tribal engagement" in Afghanistan (the workshop produced a summary report and background research materials). The purpose of the workshop was to assess the wisdom of a U.S. government-sponsored "bottom-up" security and development strategy that would essentially bypass the Afghan central government. The workshop also examined what U.S. planners and operators would have to consider in order to implement such an approach.
The workshop participants were well aware that a local community engagement strategy might undermine the Afghan government's authority and risk political fragmentation. But with time running short and the Taliban very effectively implementing their own version of "bottom-up" community engagement, workshop participants concluded that it was unwise to wait for Afghanistan's central government, using a purely "top down" strategy, to provide security and economic development across the country.
So how would a "bottom up" community engagement strategy avoid political fragmentation? Most workshop participants agreed that a community-engagement strategy should focus on the district level, a level of government that is close to the population but also has connections to the provincial governments and to Kabul. Workshop participants also agreed that Afghanistan's government won't improve its legitimacy until district governors are elected rather than appointed by Karzai.
The logic behind a bottom-up strategy in Afghanistan is difficult to refute. Afghanistan is too large, too rugged, and its villages too dispersed from the main roads for Afghanistan's national security forces to effectively patrol. That is why Afghanistan has a long tradition of locally provided security. The conditions that have supported that tradition will not change any time soon.
U.S. military forces in Afghanistan are positioned to expand the kind of community-based "foreign internal defense" mission described in the Washington Post article. Such an effort would likely bring about a faster security increase compared with waiting for the arrival of Afghanistan's still-expanding army and police forces.
One would think that President Obama's staff would be especially interested in rapid gains in local security. The recent NATO conference in Estonia, no doubt informed by Obama's July 2011 Afghan pullout deadline, agreed to an aggressive timetable to turn over security to Afghan forces. This timetable has no chance without improved security, which, in turn, would seem to require more village watch militias like the kind organized by the Special Forces soldiers outside Kandahar. U.S. commanders want to expand this approach. Karzai and Eikenberry have said "no." If the Obama team is serious about its timetable, it will have to resolve this impasse.