A Deal in Sangin


Reports from Afghanistan are heralding a recent deal between the US forces and tribal leaders in Sangin, central Helmand.  The source of nearly a third of British military casualties, it is among the most perilous regions in Afghanistan for ISAF forces.

The deal, made with 25 senior members of the Alikozai tribe on New Year’s Day, consists of a pledge by the tribal leaders to stop insurgent operations, expel foreign fighters and help pinpoint the locations of IEDs. In exchange, the coalition has released at least one prisoner and promised both infrastructural development and a reduction in the amount of house searches and airstrikes.

Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commanding general of Regional Command Southwest, sounds very optimistic:

I believe many of the Afghans in Sangin look to successful areas such as Nawa and Lashkar Gah and they want that same progress in their district. They want schools, medical clinics, and the freedom to move about without fear of the insurgency.

This was primarily an Afghan brokered agreement arrived at in close consultation with local coalition forces. It would allow for security conditions around Sangin similar to those already in place in other parts of the province.

Although most reports deny any signed agreement, it appears that the Alikozai elders also handed over a (possibly informal) written document, signed by seven Taliban commanders, to the Afghan government and the coalition.  Paula Broadwell, a PhD student at King’s College, London, and expert in military strategy who is currently conducting research in the region, told me this week that in the document, the Taliban members “swear to obey the elders’ decision.”  She was also quite hopeful, observing that:

It is a significant development with much broader implications than reintegration, though ISAF is cautiously optimistic this will reduce the fighting in the area.  It will probably take some time before insurgents come forward to demobilise and join the reintegration program.

Others are not quite as resolute about the likelihood of success, and warn against assuming that tribal elders wield the same sort of influence as those in Anbar during the Awakening in Iraq.

In Barnett Rubin’s The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, he questions how much influence old tribal structures now have among Pashtuns. He claims that migration over the past century among Pashtun families means that although they have ‘retained their identity as Pashtuns or their memory of tribal descent…they do not live among fellow tribesman or participate in tribal political institutions.’

Analysts like Joshua Foust also caution against viewing tribes in Afghanistan as hierarchically structured social and political entities. An elder’s word may have some weight, but does not count as a command that will be reliably obeyed by a significant number of fellow tribesmen.

Whereas in other hot-zones in the war on terror — such as Yemen, Somalia and certain sections of Iraq — tribal affiliation can be one of the most definitive indicators of loyalty, this is by no means the case in Afghanistan. Seen on its own, it is unlikely to serve as a reliable predictor for the reliability of group or individual decision-making promises.

Writing in February of last year in The National, Foust bemoans the assumption that tribes are the strongest influence over Afghans as “one of the most frustrating assertions about Afghanistan, directly contradicted by decades of academic research.”  Tribal affiliation, according to Foust, is by no means an Afghan’s primary source of identity, and the Taliban is defined by its non-tribal organisational structure.

Problems with the strategy may also arise from the plan to channel material support to the Alikozai.  Such initiatives often lead to tensions both within the tribe as well as with other local tribes.

Similar to most other projects in this theatre, only time will tell whether the elders can follow through with their assurances and gradually squeeze the Taliban out of the area.  However, considering the recent insistence of both the US and UK governments on setting strict timelines for military withdrawal, the clock is ticking in the Taliban’s favour.

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