The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Afghan Human Rights Official Criticizes McChrystal ‘Tribes’ Initiative

Last updated: 07/31/2020 08:00 | 12/01/2009 02:00
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Daisy-Mae Schmitt

A U.S. Army soldier communicates with an Afghan villager (U.S. Army photo) A U.S. Army soldier communicates with an Afghan villager (U.S. Army photo)

An official with the Afghan government’s human rights commission is blasting an important new U.S. military initiative in Afghanistan as a potential road to warlordism.

The new program, known as the Community Defense Initiative, seeks to aid Afghan local or tribal leaders who control paramilitary forces outside of the U.S.-sponsored Afghan army and police for use as auxiliary fighters against the Taliban-led insurgency. But Nader Nadery, a member of the ten-member Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, a government body charged by the Afghan constitution to prevent backsliding into Taliban-era abuses, said that the initiative “is indeed a matter of concern for us who work to promote the rule of law and protect human rights.”

[Security1] Nadery warned that adding tribal militias to the much-criticized weakness of Hamid Karzai’s government risked creating a new “source of insecurity itself” in an interview with TWI. “They would produce a new round of warlords who would fight for resources and positions of power for a long time,” Nadery said.

The commission on which Nadery serves has the authority to refer human-rights violators to legal authorities for investigation. Nadery did not answer a question about whether he thought such referrals might be warranted against Community Defense Initiative recipients.

The new initiative has recently received significant media attention. The New York Times ran an account of the Community Defense Initiative, portraying it as an effort to sponsor existing militias in the hope of “rapidly increas[ing] the number of Afghans fighting the Taliban.” Col. Chris Kolenda, an influential aide to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, explained to the paper, “We are trying to reach out to these groups that have organized themselves.”

That decision effectively reverses a widely praised United Nations effort launched soon after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban to demobilize the anti-Taliban militias and integrate them into the new Afghan government and security apparatus. McChrystal’s command cautions that the initiative is just beginning to get off the ground, both conceptually and in implementation, and says it’s attentive to the risks Nadery outlines.

“The goal of CDI is to create a situation where the local population is inhospitable to insurgents and where legitimate local leaders can provide security and services, ultimately, effectively connecting communities to the Afghan government,” said Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the NATO command in Afghanistan, known as ISAF. Shanks portrayed the initiative as ultimately in line with the overall U.S. effort to help the Afghan government create meaningful ties to the civilian populace. “While the security aspect emphasizes the ‘neighborhood watch’ construct, the program is a shaping effort to the critical piece of [the Afghan government] implementing aid, development and governance at the community level,” he wrote in an email to TWI.

Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer who aided U.S. Central Command with strategic planning during the early days of the Afghanistan war, said substantial monitoring would be key to ensuring that Nadery’s concerns about the initiative would not materialize. “The U.S. is going to be faced with the challenge of properly monitoring the assistance provided to local militias or security elements, in how the assistance or material support is used,” said Wood, who is now a security analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “I can give a capability, whether it’s small arms or communication [equipment] to a local group so a local community is better able to defend and police itself or keep the Taliban at bay. But the complexity on the ground is problematic for tribal or village-on-village competitions for power and influence, and unless there’s a robust monitoring capability, a local leader could use this capability to pursue his own objectives.”

Shanks endorsed the need to monitor the program, citing precisely the fear expressed by Nadery that “community-based security can sometimes degenerate into warlordism.” He did not specify how the monitoring would occur and also declined to specify any specific areas where the initiative would be implemented, since doing so “increases the likelihood of retaliatory violence by the Taliban.”

Additionally, there are questions about the degree to which the Community Defense Initiative is designed with Afghanistan in mind. Within the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency community, the experience of the Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni tribal forces and ex-insurgents turned against extremists in Iraq, has been formative. The Afghanistan initiative “seems to be promoted by some elements within the Afghan security sector and also there is an interest [from some] international partners to invest in this initiative, especially those influenced largely by the success of the same initiative in Iraq,” Nadery said.

While it is unclear exactly how much the initiative is modeled on the Iraq tribal uprising, a report issued in September by the Army’s Human Terrain System — a program that seeks to harness anthropological research to inform military strategy — warned that it is a mistake to understand Afghanistan as a primarily tribal society, despite reams of U.S. media shorthand suggesting it is, and explicitly warned against adopting that premise for the purpose of stoking tribal militia resistance to the insurgency. The report “warns that the desire for ‘tribal engagement’ in Afghanistan, executed along the lines of the recent ‘Surge’ strategy in Iraq, is based on an erroneous understanding of the human terrain,” it stated in its introduction, specifying that “many scholars are reluctant to use the word ‘tribe’ at all for describing groups in Afghanistan.”

But Shanks said that the only communities under consideration for the initiative were ones that “have already asked the Afghan government or coalition forces for assistance against insurgents,” as opposed to the Iraq model of seeking reconciliation efforts with former insurgent forces. He added that the broader U.S. approach to train, mentor and equip the Afghan security forces would not be affected by supplementing it with what he called a “community-based, ‘bottom-up’ approach” to security.

Shanks also clarified that the initiative “is not designed to pay individuals, but intends to provide collective benefits to the community through aid and development.” The U.S. sponsorship of the Awakening movements in Iraq came under domestic criticism for ostensibly paying local and tribal leaders to ensure militiamen under their command did not shoot at U.S. troops.

Nadery himself, while not the chairman of the commission, is a significant Afghan political figure in his own right. He was part of the Afghan delegation to the 2001 Bonn Conference that solidified the international community’s commitment to reconstruct Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban — the same conference that brought Karzai to power. When Afghanistan convened a national assembly, known as a loya jirga, to ratify Karzai’s rise, Nadery served as its spokesman.

“He’s been beaten, threatened and driven into hiding over the years, but his dedication to protecting the rights of his fellow citizens — be they child brides, insurgents, or civilian war victims –  hasn’t wavered,” said Una Vera Moore, a contributor to the social-activism website Change.org who frequently blogs about governance in Afghanistan. “He’s incredibly principled, to a degree that makes one marvel that he’s made it this far.”

Haneef Atmar, the Afghan interior minister who is one of the initiative’s leading Afghan advocates, did not return an email seeking comment about Nadery’s criticism and clarification about whether the initiative is led primarily by the U.S. military or the Afghan government.

On Tuesday evening, President Obama will announce an adjusted strategy for the Afghanistan war in a speech to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is expected to announce an increase in U.S. troop levels of approximately 30,000, bringing the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to approximately 100,000, the highest it has been in eight years of war. Wood, the former Central Command strategy planner, said that a robust monitoring component for the Community Defense Initiative would likely require a troop increase.

“The challenge is exacerbated by the lack of U.S. and allied personnel on the ground for routinely monitoring these things,” Wood said, warning that without such monitoring, local Afghan leaders would provide deceptive accounts of the program’s success in order to keep U.S. aid flowing. “If you come in once a week, or once a month, anyone can provide a favorable condition [matching] what you’d want to see.”

Correction: This piece initially misstated that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission can refer human-rights violators for prosecution, when in fact it can refer them for additional investigation to the Afghan legal authorities.

Daisy-Mae Schmitt | Daisy-Mae is obsessed with inventing new ways to create awesome content that's absurdly useful and successful, with over ten years of editorial and inbound marketing experience. She also serves as a reporter, strategist, interviewer, mentor, and therapist for in-house contributors and clients.

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