Can Warlords Save Afghanistan?

President Obama has made it clear that any strategy he commits to in Afghanistan must stabilize the country while accounting for our exit. But a very significant hurdle stands in the way: the notorious weakness of Afghanistan's police and military. Of the troop-level plans Obama has reportedly considered, even the smallest emphasizes training and assistance for Afghan forces. After all, for us to leave, Afghan institutions must be able to replace the 100,000 foreign troops currently providing security. This makes building a massive, national Afghan military one of our top priorities in the region. Critics of this plan say the Afghan military is hopelessly disorganized, ill-equipped and corrupt. Supporters say it's crucial to our success. But there may be another way.

Bolstering the Afghan military carries significant risks. Given how illegitimate Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is perceived to be by Afghans, a Karzai-led army would be poorly received and perhaps worsen anti-government sentiment. If a national Afghanistan army has a fraction of the national government's corruption, it could inspire disastrous backlash. Under Karzai's corrupt governance, the application of a national security force would wax and wane with political whims. With no personal stake in security outside Kabul, would Karzai really risk his resources and military strength to counter every threat or pacify every skirmish?

Afghanistan has not been a stable, unified state with a strong centralized government in three decades. The cultural and political institutions for a single national force may simply no longer exist. But Afghanistan, owing in part to necessity and in part to the tumultuous processes that have shaped the country, retains functional, if weak, security infrastructure at the provincial level. In the post-Soviet power vacuum and throughout periods of civil war, warlords arose to lead local militias. Many of them still remain in place--they were among our strongest allies in routing the Taliban's hold on the government--and have settled into more stationary roles somewhere between warlord and governor. Local rule has become the Afghan way. Local leaders who operate their own provincial forces, after all, stake their very lives on the security of their realm. By working with these leaders to establish and train local militias and police, rather than troubled and mistrusted national forces, the U.S. could find its route to Afghan stability and exit.

In parts of Afghanistan, strong provincial leadership has already developed security separate from national leadership. In the relatively peaceful and prosperous northern region of Mazar-E-Sharif, Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, himself a former warlord who fought against the Soviets and Taliban, commands authority rivaling that of President Karzai. Unlike Karzai, Noor is popular among his constituents and his province enjoys remarkable stability. The local military officials are loyal to him before Karzai, if they are loyal to Karzai at all. By promoting local governance and directing our military training and assistance to forces loyal to that governance, the U.S. could promote other strong provincial leaders like Noor.

Like Noor, many of these are likely to be former or current warlords. Warlords, despite their scary name, can be our strongest allies. They tend to be non-ideological and fervently anti-Taliban. Their fates are tied to the local populaces they govern. They're corrupt and tax heavily, but they provide real security and are trusted. Their ambitions are not for anti-Western war or fundamentalism, but sovereignty, security, and domination. None of these men is Thomas Jefferson, but in a country of many evil and exploitative forces, they are the best that Afghan civilians or American forces are likely to get.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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