Afghanistan: Petraeus plan to defeat the Taliban to be tested in 2009

Kabul, 6 Jan. (AKI) - By Syed Saleem Shahzad - With a new Taliban offensive expected when the snow melts in Afghanistan in the next three months, US and British forces are preparing to use 'Arbakai' or Afghan village militia patrols to complement a troop surge and confront the Taliban.

But since the Taliban controls 72 percent of Afghanistan, according to the influential British think-tank the International Council on Security and Development, there are doubts about whether the new strategy will work. 

The concept is being driven by the head of US Central Command, General David Petraeus, who as head of the multinational force in Iraq very successfully combined a troop surge with tribal militia support against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. The strategy is widely credited with helping reduce violence in Iraq.

In the next six months, four US combat brigades will be added to existing troop numbers to confront the Taliban.

However, critics believe that the Taliban in Afghanistan is a different phenomenon from Iraq,where foreign fighters allied with Al-Qaeda led the insurgency and provided the opportunity for US forces to intervene and gain the support of local tribes.

The use of Arbakai in Afghanistan is also backed by British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles.

Sir Sherard, a career diplomat, was assigned to Kabul as British Ambassador in 2007. He convinced British prime minister Gordon Brown that a modern adaptation of Arbakai would be an effective way to defeat the Taliban.

An Oxford University graduate, Coles apparently backed sending diplomats on secret missions, without the consent of the US or the Afghan government, to strike peace deals with Taliban commanders in south-west Helmand province. The initiative backfired.

The US and Afghanistan rejected such overtures and ordered the expulsion of European Union and United Nations officials, who were covertly sent with the consent of the British embassy in Kabul.

However, Sir Sherard did not give up hope and continued with his efforts to use tribal tradition to win support from local people.

Since his ideas matched those of Petraeus, the use of tribal militias gained support among foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan, except for Canada, which had doubts about the scheme.

Sir Sherard and Petraeus were apparently impressed by the historic success of the Arbakai, even though a similar plan launched in 2006 not only failed but actually fuelled the Taliban insurgency.

Under a scheme approved by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Sher Mohammad Akhunzada, former governor of lawless Helmand province, recruited 500 men from local tribes and established a tribal militia to guard various locations in the province.

After the experiment of Helmand, there was a move to expand it in the neighbouring restive provinces of Urzgan, Zabul and Kandahar. The newly recruited militias were given monthly stipends and arms. However, these militias failed without firing a single bullet.

They defected to the Taliban, along with their arms as soon as they were launched, because the Taliban is the real tribal militia completely backed by tribal chiefs, clerics and local people.

The same thing happened with tribal police formed in late 2006. In 2007 they were sent to places like Panjwai in southern Kandahar province and in Musa Qala in Helmand province.

When the Taliban decided to target and take control of those provinces, they announced that local tribal police should lay down their arms and withdraw from the areas. The tribal police immediately took their advice.

The Taliban have already set up a force to counter a new troop surge in 2009 by cutting off the NATO supply line from Pakistan.

As a result of daily attacks on NATO's Kabul-bound supply route through Pakistan - which accounts for 80 percent of NATO's supplies for Afghanistan - the route is almost choked.

An operation was hurriedly launched in the Khyber Agency on the Afghan border last week to restore the supply route but it is unclear whether their efforts succeeded.

The British-backed peace agreements in 2008 in Pakistan's volatile North West Frontier province was aimed at giving the newly elected Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party a chance to establish itself in the rebel ruled areas and develop a consensus to drive out the Taliban.

This was also tried in the border tribal areas and in the Swat valley. In Bajaur, the local Salarzai tribe sided with the government, and heavily backed by Pakistan's army and air force, had some success.

They set the property belonging to the Taliban on fire but once the Taliban attacks began and Pakistani forces retreated, the Salarzai sustained huge losses.

In the Swat Valley, the Awami National Party, which governs North West Frontier Province created citizen comittees to establish peace in the area.

In a collective decision they destroyed property belonging to the Taliban. However, very much like Bajaur when the Taliban regrouped and forced the Pakistani security agencies to retreat, and the Awami National Party was wiped out of the Swat valley. Several leaders including members of the provincial assemblies were killed.

Even the ANP president, Asfanyar Wali Khan, was the victim of a suicide attack and forced to flee to Islamabad and then to Europe. He was only allowed to return after he and the Taliban agreed not to fight each other.

The big question now is whether Petraeus will have any impact on a resurgent Taliban which is extending its control in Afghanistan.



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