The New U.S. Ally In Afghanistan

The White House will hold its ninth national security meeting on Afghanistan tonight to "fine tune" President Obama's forthcoming strategy announcement. Likely to be under discussion at the meeting is the rise of a new ally in Afghanistan that could supplement or even replace the tens of thousands of troops Obama is expected to send: local and organically-arising anti-Taliban militias.

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan that has been fighting against the U.S. for eight years may be losing its base of support. American officials told USA Today that 80% to 90% of the 700-some detainees imprisoned at Bagram Air Force base are "accidental guerrillas" not fighting for ideological reasons. In a country with debilitating poverty, 40% unemployment, and few job alternatives, many Taliban fighters may have simply joined for the salary. Dexter Filkins of The New York Times reveals the U.S.-allied local militias that could be hiring them instead:

In the Pashtun-dominated areas of the south and east, the anti-Taliban militias are being led by elders from local tribes. The Pashtun militias represent a reassertion of the country's age-old tribal system, which binds villages and regions under the leadership of groups of elders. The tribal networks have been alternately decimated and co-opted by Taliban insurgents. Local tribal leaders, while still powerful, cannot count on the allegiance of all of their tribes' members.

Militias have begun taking up arms against the Taliban in several places where insurgents have gained a foothold, including the provinces of Nangarhar and Paktia.

The White House will likely consider buying out would-be Taliban insurgents to join these militias. After all, one such fighter would surely cost less than the $1 million price tag for sending an American troop. It also risks none of the political capital of a massive troop increase, which is unpopular with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. If it works, it would undermine the Taliban's support. The Taliban has two ways to recruit: money and anti-Western propaganda. Taliban recruiters would have an awfully hard time out-bidding the U.S. for militants or convincing Afghans to take up arms against their ethnic and religious fellows. It also gives local leaders a means for security and control, both essential to building a civil society. And civil society -- infrastructure, education, jobs -- is crucial to Obama's eventual exit strategy. After all, the Northern Alliance of tribal warlords from Afghanistan's more-stable north were a crucial U.S. ally in initially ousting the Taliban. These new militias are smaller and come from the country's more troubled south and east, which could indicate that the stability of the north is finally spreading to the rest of the country.

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But this carries significant risks for the U.S. If escalation of internal fighting continues for too long, the fragile country could unravel in a number of ways. Wider war could further erode the already crippled infrastructure. As "hired gun" becomes the only viable job, fighting could become less a means to an end than a way of life. Extended Afghan-on-Afghan combat could also lead to any number of sectarian or ethnic-based fissures. Such fighting always carries the risk of developing Pashtun-versus-Tajik overtones, for example, or squabbling between provincial leaders, which could begin as little more than a misunderstanding but quickly spin out of control. Worse, if security forces are divorced from government leadership, they may decide to challenge the local government for authority. This would force the U.S. to fight an entirely new insurgency, one that it had funded and armed.

If anti-Taliban militias rise quickly and promote local security, they could provide a big break for Obama and help alleviate the White House's political dilemma. The more Afghans take up arms the less Americans will have to do so, and Obama will be able to continue large-scale fighting in Afghanistan without alienating liberal Democrats with a massive troop increase. However, this sets up the later challenge of getting the militias to disarm. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. worked hard to arm and train the anti-Soviet militias, some of which have since turned to jihad. CIA efforts to buy back American weapons from the militias, especially shoulder-fired missiles, were mixed. The question is whether this strategy will help to build Afghan security and political relief for Obama or risk Afghanistan's fourth decade of endless war.