Petraeus's militias: the risk of civil war

Petraeus's proposed Afghan militias risk restoring the conditions that led Afghanistan to civil war in the 1990s. This, the Kabul conference and other initiatives have no hope unless civilian command of the military mission in Afghanistan is asserted, argues Carlo Ungaro.
Carlo Ungaro
2 August 2010

There was a surreal quality to July’s Kabul Conference on the future of Afghanistan. This also contributed to shedding some more light on the differences in approach between the military and  civilian components of the Nato forces inside the Country.

An example of this dangerous dichotomy can be seen in the proposal, made by general Petraeus on the very eve of the conference, to encourage  armed  resistance  to the insurgency at a local level. Both the timing and the substance of this proposal were certainly debatable, and, in fact, potentially dangerous.

It is therefore not surprising that the idea was greeted with reservations by President Karzai, and generated scepticism from those who have a memory of recent Afghan history, and I allude not to the epic battles against the British Empire, but to the post-soviet years. During that occupation, local warlords had been  encouraged and financed by the “west” and by Pakistan. Left to themselves, they led the country into a senseless, violent civil war, opening the doors, at the end of the day, to those very Taliban forces we are ostensibly out to defeat. It was was thought that arming warlords and tribal leaders (the difference is not always clear to outsiders), thus giving an official  blessing to their military initiatives, would create a thorn in the side of the invaders. This was undeniably true, but, after the much-heralded departure of the Soviet troops, an agreement having been found between the two superpowers to cease financing  armed activity in Afghanistan,  the Kabul government found itself deprived of any vestige of national authority, while once relatively peaceful regions were turned into veritable battlegrounds.

Some observers, and I among these, have been advocating the formal decentralization of Afghanistan, into a structure more akin to a federation than the highly centralized system envisaged by the constitution. Past experience indicates that Afghanistan will not have a viable political future if the entire structure of leadership is left to a government, bereft of authority, isolated in the capital, Kabul.

The creation of a local feeling of greater autonomy, as well as showing a more appreciable respect for local traditions and, above all, allowing the provinces to govern themselves  would therefore seem like a sensible idea well deserving further exploration. Local authority, for example, is now mostly in the hands of governors – often of different ethnic extraction to the ruled – imposed by the central government and never subjected to electoral scrutiny or accountability. In a country traditionally dominated by tribal and ethnic loyalties, this situation further lessens trust in the national government.

When, in 2005, I helped monitor the local elections in the Herat area, I had a first-hand view of how important local politics could be, as compared to the greater picture of national political life. There was much genuine involvement of the electorate – both male and female – and the municipal council which emerged was made up of motivated and competent men and women, who, of course, were deprived of any authority to act.

The arming of local militias should therefore not constitute a priority and should certainly not be the initial but perhaps one of the very last steps in a process of decentralization, which, because of its  audacity and novelty ought to be preceded by serious and extensive political debate, with ample tribal participation (in other words an Afghan Jirga) even if this means including some suspected  “warlords” in the process.

Options for the solution of the Afghan dilemma rest not with those seemingly in power, whose actions are obviously conditioned by the presence of foreign armies, but in the hands of the Nato partners who, in reality, rule the country and have the ultimate decision-making power.

The fact is that a choice has to be made as to whether the leadership in the Afghan venture  can finally pass from military to civilian hands. The firing of General McChrystal notwithstanding, the entire operation still appears to be exclusively military led. No matter what  amount of wisdom – if any -  has been generated at the Kabul conference, this situation can only lead to further misunderstanding and failure.

The formula indicated by general Petraeus seems likely to bring that troubled country to a repetition of the civil war of the  nineties, with the added incentive – a sort of “winner take all” bonus – of the  opium poppy crops which have never prospered as they are prospering now, plus, obviously, the enticement of the “newly discovered” mineral riches.

If any hope remains for a solution of the Afghan problem, this has to rest on a firm civilian international, as well as local, leadership with strong military backing. The  remarks issued by  Petraeus on 4 July for the need for greater military-civilian cooperation do not bode well and all the indications are that the military will continue to call the shots.

The fact is that the initiative for cooperation between civilians and the military should never be left to the latter for they, out of their basic training, inevitably see it as a military leadership with the unquestioning acceptance of the civilians. They seem unwilling, one could say almost psychologically unable, to  place themselves on an equal footing or in a subordinate position.

Meanwhile, the best that can be done both by Nato and by the Afghans, is to forget about the 20 July conference, which was worse than useless, and which could actually reveal itself as a turning point towards final disaster.

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