American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban.
The emergence of the militias, which took some leaders in Kabul by surprise, has so encouraged United States and Afghan officials that they are planning to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland in the southern and eastern parts of the country.
They are hoping the plan, called the Community Defence Initiative, will bring together thousands of gunmen to protect their neighbourhoods from Taliban insurgents. Already there are hundreds of Afghans who are acting on their own against the Taliban, they say.
The endeavour represents one of the most ambitious -- and one of the riskiest -- plans for regaining the initiative against the Taliban, which is fighting more vigorously than at any time since 2001.
By harnessing the militias, U.S. and Afghan officials hope to rapidly increase the number of Afghans fighting the Taliban. That could supplement the U.S. and Afghan forces and whatever number of U.S. troops President Barack Obama might decide to send. The militias could also help fill the gap while the Afghan army and police forces train and grow -- a project that could take years to bear fruit.
The U.S. officials hope the militias will encourage an increasingly demoralised Afghan population to take a stake in the war against the Taliban. “The idea is to get people to take responsibility for their own security,” said a senior U.S. military official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In many places, they are already doing that.”
The growth of the anti-Taliban militias runs the risk that they could turn on one another, or against the Afghan and the U.S. governments, as has happened in the past. The Americans say they will keep the groups small and will limit the scope of their activities to protecting villages and manning checkpoints. For now, they are not arming the groups because they already have guns. The Americans also say they will tie the groups to the Afghan government. These checks aim to avoid repeating mistakes of the past — creating more warlords, who have defied the government’s authority for years, or arming anti-Soviet Islamic militants, some of whom came back to haunt the U.S.
The plan echoes a similar movement that unfolded in Iraq, beginning in late 2006, in which Sunni tribes turned against Islamist extremists. That movement, called the Sunni Awakening, brought tens of thousands of former insurgents into government-supervised militias and helped substantially reduce the violence in Iraq. A rebellion on a similar scale seems unlikely in Afghanistan, in large part because the tribes here are so much weaker than those in Iraq.
The first phase of the Afghan plan, now being carried out by U.S. Special Forces soldiers, is to set up or expand the militias in areas with a population of about a million people. Special Forces soldiers have been fanning out across the countryside, descending from helicopters into valleys where the residents have taken up arms against the Taliban and offering their help. “We are trying to reach out to these groups that have organised themselves,” Colonel Christopher Kolenda said in Kabul. Afghan and U.S. officials say they plan to use the militias as tripwires for Taliban incursions, enabling them to call the army or the police if things get out of hand.
The official assistance to the militias so far has been modest, consisting mainly of ammunition and food, officials said. But U.S. and Afghan officials say they are also planning to train the fighters and provide communication equipment. “What we are talking about is a local, spontaneous and indigenous response to the Taliban,” said Hanif Atmar, the Afghan Interior Minister. “The Afghans are saying, ‘We are willing and determined and capable to defend our country; just give us the resources’.”
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.
So far, there appears to be some divergence in the American and Afghan efforts. While U.S. Special Forces units have focussed on helping smaller militias, Afghan officials have been channelling assistance to larger armed groups, including those around the northern city of Kunduz. In that city, several armed groups, led by ethnic Uzbek commanders as well as Pashtuns, are confronting the Taliban. “In Kunduz, after they defeated the Taliban in their villages, they became the power and they took money and taxes from the people,” Mr. Atmar said. “This is not legal, and this is warlordism.”
One of the most striking examples of a local militia rising up on its own is in Achin, a predominantly Pashtun district in Nangarhar province that straddles the border with Pakistan. In July, a long-running dispute between local Taliban fighters and elders from the Shinwari tribe flared up. When a local Taliban warlord named Khona brought a more senior commander from Pakistan to help in the confrontation, the elders in the Shinwari tribe rallied villagers from up and down the valley where they live, killed the commander and chased Khona away.
The elders insisted that the Taliban stay away from a group of Afghans building a dike in the valley. When Khona’s men kidnapped two Afghan engineers, the Shinwari elders decided they had had enough. “The whole tribe was with me,” one of the elders said in an interview. “The Taliban came to kill me, and instead we killed them.”
Since the fight, the Taliban has been kept away from a string of villages in the Achin district that stretch for about six miles. The elders said they were able to do so by assembling a group of more than 100 fighters and posting them at each end of the valley. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service