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One Tribe at a Time


T HE US HAS BEEN IN AFGHANISTAN for eight years. We have fought hard and accom- plished some good. Tactically, we have not lost a battle. Despite the lethal sophistication of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) threat, we defeat the Taliban in every engagement. But are we closer to our goals than we were eight years ago? Are the Afghan people closer to a stable way of life? Are we closer to our national strategic objectives there?

Based on my time in Afghanistan—and my study of the region, tribes, counter-insurgency (COIN) and unconventional warfare (UW)—positive momentum in Afghanistan depends on the US force’s support for the tribal systems already in place. Take it a step fur- ther and “advise, assist, train and lead” tribal security forces (Arbakais) much like we have been doing with the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) and Afghani- stan National Police (ANP).

I will get into the specics later in this paper, but what I believe must happen is a tribal movement sup- ported by the US which allows the tribal leaders and the tribes they represent to have access to the local, district, provincial, and national leadership. is pro- cess has to be a “bottom-up” approach.

  • ere is no shortage of information detailing

Afghan corruption at all levels of government. is directly aects the tribes. If the national government cannot protect “us,” if US forces cannot protect “us,” if we cannot protect ourselves . . . the only answer is to side with the Taliban. How can you blame anyone for that? I would do the same. As we all know, the answers to the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan have no purely military answer. However, the political strategy of governing from Kabul or ghting the war from there is clearly not working. It never has. More importantly, it never will.

Afghanistan has never had a strong central govern-

ment. A strategy in which the central government is the centerpiece of our counterinsurgency plan is destined to fail. It disenfranchises the very fabric of Afghan society. e tribal system in Afghanistan has taken a brutal beating for several decades. By sup- porting and giving some power back to the tribes, we can make positive progress in the region once again.

Even the people who advise our national policy- makers see the need to engage the tribes. “e Afghan government is not competent enough to deal with the dire threats that currently face Afghanistan,” says Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corp. who advises the Pentagon. “is means working with tribal lead- ers.” (Sappeneld, To Fight Taliban)

I have fought on the battleelds of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is by far the more dicult and brutal operational environment. e enemy there has never been defeated. Time is on their side. Trust me. I have sat face to face with Afghans, both friends and enemies, who endure unimaginable hardships.

  • ey will do it, their children will do it and their chil-

dren’s children will do it. ey own all the time.

When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member.” Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. is is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen rst.

It is a matter of national security that the US gov- ernment and specically the military grasp the impor- tance of the tribes, and learn to operate comfortably in a tribal setting. is paper is about why and how we need to engage the tribal structure present in Afghani- stan. 

A strategy in which the central government is the centerpiece of our counterinsurgency plan is destined to fail. It disenfranchises the very fabric of Afghan society.


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