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What Worked In Iraq Must Work In Afghanistan, Right?

In October, Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan expressed skepticism over the prospect of signing up tribal militias, Anbar Province-style, to fight the Taliban. Over the last several days, it’s become increasingly clear that a Sons-of-Afghanistan style approach — the recruitment of tribal auxiliaries — is nevertheless in the cards, and evidently with the approval of McKiernan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his reported criticisms of the idea notwithstanding.

Today Dexter Filkins of the New York Times explores the emerging Sons of Afghanistan plan and injects a healthy dose of skepticism. Apparently a pilot tribal-militia program is on track to start in Wardak in 2009.Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, has a very unhappy history of militias doing their own thing; and also unlike Iraq, where the Anbar Province revolt was a bottom-up response to the perfidies of Al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, this program is a top-down directive, through the U.S. military, to get tribal leaders to raise their own militias. Add to that the fact that the plan is a complete reversal of a U.S. and U.N. joint effort in the early days of the war to disarm Afghan militiamen. And the fact that the Afghan parliament voted this plan down already a few months ago.

“There will be fighting between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns,” said Salih Mohammad Registani, a member of the Afghan Parliament and an ethnic Tajik. Mr. Registani raised the specter of the Arbaki, a Pashtun-dominated militia turned loose on other Afghans early in the 20th century.

“A civil war will start very soon,” he said.

Is that a proposition we really ought to be testing? One that could also inflame sectarianism in Afghanistan, which, at least on the basis of my admittedly short visit, I didn’t see in evidence?

What I did see was an overwhelming desire for security among the population. Lots of people said something to me that boiled down to, “When the Taliban were in power, the roads were safe, food was cheap and gas is cheap. Now the Americans are here and none of that is true.” The major factor that made the tribal revolt in Anbar work was that the population, including the extremists, understood that Al Qaeda offered them a bleaker future than even the occupation. Nothing like that exists in Afghanistan — or, at least, there is an alarming lack of evidence for that crucial proposition.

People need to take a very deep breath. To judge by the available evidence, the Afghan population wants security. It does not want more militias. The Afghan Senate has actually rejected this proposal explicitly. Is there any actual appetite among Afghans for a Sons-of-Afghanistan program? Or is this a case of hubristic Americans coming into Afghanistan and imposing a template from Iraq upon an overwhelmingly different country and overwhelmingly different set of conditions? You can tell what I suspect from the way I framed the question.

One more thing. I get a lot wrong. I believed with absolute certainty that the surge in 2007 had no chance of tamping down violence in Iraq. And I mean absolute certainty — not just that it wouldn’t work but that it couldn’t work. And clearly that was completely wrong. (It was still strategically the wrong thing to do, but that’s a separate argument.) If the tribal-militias proposal in Afghanistan is in fact a set course, I would like to be wrong about that as well.

But notice what we’re doing here by discussing the question in this way. We’re not talking about Afghanistan-qua-Afghanistan at all. Instead we’re talking about a series of meta-propositions and who was right and who was wrong about them, not first-order concerns about the wisdom, feasability, and drawbacks of the idea itself. And that is the sort of debate that in Washington substitutes for considering first-order problems, and it gets people needlessly killed. We cannot think in these terms anymore, because we know exactly where it leads. Merry Christmas.

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