It’s Time for the Coalition to Step Aside

Today’s Washington Post reports that residents of Gizab, a village in southern Afghanistan, reclaimed their territory from the Taliban. One U.S. commander called it “perhaps the most important thing that has happened in southern Afghanistan this year.”

Gizab may eventually turn back to Taliban control, but at least for now, we can try and postulate as to why local residents successfully defended their territory, achieving what the coalition has been trying to do for years throughout the country but to no avail. Here’s a thought: allow Afghans to fight the Taliban themselves and slowly back away. Unfortunately, this story may reinforce the atrocious ”One Tribe at a Time” formulation, a strategy that entails coalition troops “going native” and unilaterally choosing tribes to side with against the Taliban–of course, without any proper understanding of tribal or community dynamics beforehand.

As I wrote several weeks ago, “merely increasing our knowledge of Afghanistan’s local politics will not guarantee success; presuming we can simply learn what ethnicities and communities can be ‘peeled off’ from militants does not necessarily mean we will reach the ends we seek or yield the outcomes we want.”

Many moons ago, Christian Bleuer over at The Ghosts of Alexander wrote about the follies of following the ”One Tribe at a Time” formula. “Seriously, go out and try to find the ‘tribal leadership.’ You will find that there is no clear, stable leadership. Things are in flux, and always have been. Especially since 1979. You will end up with a bunch of squabbling locals trying to call in air strikes on their rivals…. Please don’t let this anecdote draw away attention from how bad Gant’s paper is when considered in its entirety. The blind embedded, hyper-localized ‘adopted son’ mentality he shows should be a warning to all. Anthropologists do their best to not ‘join the tribe.’ So should soldiers.”

Indeed, Judah Grunstein wrote a while back in Small Wars Journal about this very same issue. “What’s also overlooked – by Gant [author of “One Tribe at a Time”], but also by more conventional COIN theory – is the fact that intervening in a social system creates both winners and losers. COIN bases its methodology in large part on the assumption that losers will shift loyalties in order to compete for the benefits on offer. Again, the lessons from the helping professions show that this is far from a foregone conclusion. The resulting power imbalances within the indigenous structure can instead lead to increased – and rigidified – resentment and hostility toward the helping professional.”

Most analysts in D.C. are waiting for that silver bullet, that one strategy that will help America “win.” But Afghans can “win” without our help, as villagers in Gizab have shown. It may not be easy, and Afghans will surely encounter setbacks, but coalition forces cannot continually recalibrate policy to accurately predict which areas of Afghanistan will prefer the corrupt centralized government we back and which ones will not. It’s time we get out of the way and let Afghans decide their future, Taliban or no Taliban.