Establishing new militias in Afghanistan is playing with fire

A Dangerous Plan for Afghanistan

Obama’s about to repeat a Soviet-era mistake

By BRAHMA CHELLANEY | Wall Street Journal | February 24, 2009

President Barack Obama has unveiled a troop surge in Afghanistan that will put 17,000 more American soldiers on the ground. But his plan still lacks clarity on how to save a faltering military mission.

His administration risks repeating the very mistakes that have come to haunt the security of the free world. In the same way the United States created mujahedeen (holy warriors) by funneling billions of dollars worth of arms to them in the 1980s, Washington has now embarked on a plan to establish local militias in various Afghan provinces.

Hamid Karzai

The U.S. covert war against the nine-year Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan helped create Frankensteins like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar. That war, fuelled by the CIA, contributed to the jihad culture that today plagues Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, while trying to salvage the overt war that the U.S. has waged in Afghanistan since 2001, Mr. Obama is unwittingly seeking to repeat history.

Under this new program, designed to complement the U.S. surge, lightly trained militias will be set up in the provinces to help enforce order. According to the Afghan interior minister, America will pay for the upkeep of the militias and provide them with Kalashnikov automatic rifles as well as other arms. The militia are modeled on the U.S.-established Sunni "Awakening Councils" in Iraq, which have been credited with significantly reducing violence. The first such Afghan militia units, already being trained, are set to be rolled out shortly in Wardak province.

At the same time, Washington is unveiling a quantum jump in aid to Pakistan, tripling its nonmilitary assistance to an annual $1.5 billion and maintaining its existing munificent level of military aid, without seeking to bring the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency under civilian oversight. This is also a repeat of the 1980s, when the ISI was the main conduit in the covert war and the U.S. provided multibillion dollar aid packages to Pakistan while turning a blind eye to the ISI’s nuclear-smuggling and other illicit transborder activities.

There is real danger that the new Afghan militias could go out of control and threaten regional and international security. Already, according to a Government Accountability Office report, the Pentagon cannot account for 87,000 weapons handed out to Afghan security forces, and Washington admits misuse of its military aid by Pakistan. These abuses will only grow under Mr. Obama’s plan.

Mr. Obama must abandon the program to establish local Afghan militias or he risks enlarging the community of gun-toting militants and expanding the militancy-triggered Islamist ruins to Pakistan’s east and Afghanistan’s west. Instead, Mr. Obama should step up funding to train and build a larger multiethnic Afghan national army. The international goals for Afghanistan agreed on after the U.S. intervention remain pertinent: stronger secular national institutions; accelerated reconstruction and development; an elected, multiethnic government; suffrage for women; and a better economy to help reduce the drug trade.

Institution building holds the key to a more moderate, viable Afghanistan and Pakistan. These two countries are a tangled web of competing tribes and ethnic communities, and their ultimate stability depends on national institutions like a secular educational system and security forces that are under civilian oversight. Building such institutions is not easy in the face of mushrooming madrassas — the Islamic schools that have become jihad factories — and spreading militancy. But it is the objective that the international community must continue to focus on — a goal that has prompted India to pour $1.2 billion in development aid into Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama is right to give priority to this region and to try to rectify a war that had been undermanned and underfinanced for so long because of Iraq. But to establish militias is to seek a dangerous shortcut in a region already swarming with armed militiamen.

Genuine prior consultations with partners and friends actively engaged in Afghanistan are essential. Richard Holbrooke’s job as special representative is not merely to market decisions already made in Washington. So far, however, the signs aren’t good: Mr. Obama last week made his first presidential telephone call to Afghan President Hamid Karzai only to convey an Afghanistan-related decision he had already made — to send 17,000 more U.S. troops.

If Afghanistan is not to unravel or split into distinct sectarian parts, skillful negotiations with clan leaders are needed to beef up Afghan security forces, not to establish new provincial militias. The insurgency can be contained not by foreign forces but by an Afghan national army that is sufficiently large and adequately trained. It is only when Afghans take over the fight that the thuggish Taliban and other militias will loose ground.

The avowed mission of the U.S., NATO and other states has been nation-building. It should not degenerate into militia-building. The answer to the warlords’ power is a more capable national army, not more private armies.

Mr. Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author most recently of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan" (HarperCollins, 2007).

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