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McKiernan Not Hot on ‘Sons of Afghanistan’ Idea

Earlier today I wondered what Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, thought about empowering tribal forces to augment Afghan police and soldiers — that is, creating a “Sons of Afghanistan” force like the Sons of Iraq. I posed the question to McKiernan at a press conference today. The short answer: not a good idea, from his perspective.

Here’s McKiernan’s entire answer:

I like to remind people that Afghanistan, when the United States intervened after 9/11, was in a civil war. It wouldn’t take much to go back to a civil war. There’s a degree of complexity with tribal networks that I find if I stayed there 20 years I would not understand completely.

I do think there’s a role for traditional tribal authorities and tribal structure in Afghanistan, in the rural areas especially, to play in a community-based sense of security, of connection with the government, and of environmental considerations. But I think that has to be led, that tribal engagement, it has to be led by the Afghan government. I specifically tell my chain of command in ISAF [International Security Assistance Force, the name for NATO's mission in Afghanistan] that I don’t want the military to be engaging the tribes to do that. It has to be through the Afghan government to do that. But of course, there’s danger in that. There’s always, “Is this particular tribe, is it being reached out to for all the right reasons?” That has to be watched very closely.

Later, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung followed up, and McKiernan elaborated — and, in the process, threw cold water on the broader idea that what seemed to work in Iraq will work in Afghanistan:

First of all, please don’t think that I’m saying there’s no room for tribal engagement in Afghanistan, because I think it’s very necessary. But I think it’s much more complex environment of tribal linkages, and intertribal complexity than there is in Iraq. It’s not as simple as taking the Sunni Awakening and doing the Pashtun Awakening in Afghanistan. It’s much more complex than that.

But there are countless other differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, it’s such a poor country, by any set of metrics you can imagine. A country that has very harsh geography. It’s very difficult to move around, getting back to our reliance on helicopters. It’s a country with very few natural resources, as opposed to the oil revenues that [Iraq] has. There’s very little money to be generated in terms of generated in Afghanistan. The literacy rate — you have a literate society in Iraq, you have a society that has a history of producing civil administrators, technocrats, middle class that are able to run the country in Iraq. You do not have that in Afghanistan. So there’s educational challenges, challenges of human capitol that I mentioned earlier.

So there are a lot of challenges. What I don’t think is needed — the word that I don’t use in Afghanistan is the word “surge.” There needs to be a sustained commitment of a variety of military and non-military resources, I believe. That’s my advice to winning in Afghanistan. It won’t be a short-term solution.

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