Watershed tribal engagement in Sangin?


Josef Patterson, a platoon commander out of Camp Pendleton, meets with the Alikozai tribe last week. In exchange for quelling insurgent attacks against coalition forces, elders have asked for more Afghan-led patrols and reconstruction projects. AP image.

Hopeful news about a tribal peace deal in the turbulent southern Afghan province of Helmand has been making the rounds:

Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, Commanding General of Regional Command Southwest, started the new year in Sangin with Helmand Provincial Governor Ghulab Mangal, leaders of the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and Alikozai tribal leaders to broker a peace deal in the embattled region in southern Afghanistan Jan. 1.

“Local elders from the Sangin area approached Governor Mangal and myself to discuss what I would term an important security agreement,” said Mills. “I believe many of the Afghans in Sangin look to successful areas such as Nawa and Lashkar Gah and they want that same progress in their district. They want schools, medical clinics, and the freedom to move about without fear of the insurgency.”

The tribal elders presented the Afghan government and Coalition leaders a document signed by seven Taliban commanders who agreed to follow the direction of the elders. In exchange, the elders asked that Afghan forces lead searches of area compounds, that all patrols in the area are partnered and for commitments for short-term and long-term reconstruction and development projects.

Sangin has been one of the most heavily-contested districts in Helmand province. Nearly a third of all British combat deaths during the Afghan war have occurred in the district, and the US 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment has lost 23 Marines killed and more than 100 wounded since its arrival in mid-October 2010. Along with Kajaki, Sangin is viewed as a final redoubt for the Taliban in Northern Helmand. Thus, any progress in tribal engagement seems like good news for Marine counterinsurgency efforts.

A report from the Christian Science Monitor adds a little more detail, plus some due skepticism:

News of the deal has sparked much interest throughout Afghanistan and among NATO commanders, and drawn some comparison with efforts in Iraq to use tribal influence against the insurgency there. But it remains unclear how much it can achieve.

A few paragraphs down, the catch [emphasis mine]:

Tribal representatives speak only for their small collection of villages, not the entire tribe or district. So far, no other tribes appear to have made similar agreements.

Alikozai tribal elders, who say they were authorized to speak for the Taliban, approached local government officials nearly a month ago about creating a peace agreement in Sarwan Qala, a network of about 30 villages in Helmand Province’s Sangin district.

It’s inevitable that many analysts will view the peace deal through the lens of Iraq’s “Awakening.” Implicit in that framework are several popularly understood factors: that tribes which ally with American and indigenous government forces are fed up with extremists (Al Qaeda in the case of Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan), such tribes see economic opportunity in an alliance, and the tribes are responding to aggressive and successful military operations that have sapped the enemy’s will to fight.

In the case of Sangin, the latter two points are likely the most operative. Economic incentives probably play into the Alokozai decision to make a deal with ISAF and the government, and several high-profile decapitation strikes on Taliban leadership in Northern Helmand, coupled with the Marines’ aggressive operations after taking over for the British, have certainly made the prospect of insurgency less attractive.

The concept of Taliban extremism spurring a popular backlash is much less of a factor in this case, however. The prime motivation for the deal in Sangin may be weakness — a specific tribe throwing in with the government and Western forces in order to gain the upper hand in its longstanding struggle with other tribes.

The Sangin area is a nexus of the Afghan opium trade, and the district is comprised of several tribes that compete for a share of business and political power. These include the Alizai, Ishaqzai, Noorzai, and Barakzai, as well as the Alokozai, the tribe pledging the “new” alliance. After the American invasion of Afghanistan, the Alokozai obtained the lion’s share of government power via appointments to key offices, and proceeded to use its resources against those declared “Taliban.” This list included some actual Taliban but also the Alokozai’s tribal rivals.

In 2005, the oppressed tribes – an alliance of Ishaqzai, Alizai and Noorzai – unified to wage a somewhat successful campaign of retribution for various insults to Pashtun honor. Several Alokozai leaders were assassinated or removed from power, and the tribe’s authority and traditional structure have been frayed by the years of war since.

Thus, this reported alliance with the government and the Marines in Sangin may represent less of a watershed political breakthrough and more of an accommodation with a minority of the district as they seek advantage in a bloody tribal grudge match. This fact does not necessarily doom attempts to quell the insurgency – some of the first tribes to ally with the US in Anbar province in Iraq did so from a similar position of weakness while engaged in their own war with historical competitors allied with Al Qaeda.

But there are factors that make this latest alliance less significant than the start of Iraq’s Awakening, and one stands out in particular. The Iraqi Awakening started a domino effect of tribes allying against the insurgency because Al Qaeda in Iraq had become widely unpopular. AQI’s rapacious encroachment on tribal business and a murderous campaign of intimidation and religious extremism radicalized a succession of tribes against the group.

In contrast, the tribal war in Sangin has fewer of these murderous religious and grassroots resistance elements dominating local politics. Although there are committed Taliban in the district as well as radical ideologues associated with jihadi networks based in Pakistan and beyond, large forces fueling instability in Sangin are a tribal war rooted in Pashtun honor codes, and competition for narcodollars. The latter presents a long term challenge to Afghanistan’s stability.

“The narcotics threat in this community, from what I can tell, is completely underplayed, and is a specter that will maintain a high level of violence until a proper strategy is planned, agreed upon, and implemented,” argues Matt Dupee, an Afghan researcher with the Naval Postgraduate School and occasional Long War Journal contributor. “Sangin is still the largest hub for narco-transactions in RC-South. There is an urgent demand to better understand the intersection of politics, business, narcotics, and conflict at the local level in Afghanistan.”

During the past year, the Marines have made remarkable progress in Helmand, and it’s possible the Sangin tribal agreement will prove to be a first step in flipping a succession of tribes away from insurgency. But unless ISAF and Afghan government forces adequately address the drug economy and defuse the current tribal conflict (which would facilitate alliances with other tribes), this deal may turn out to be less than a game-changer. It may simply amount to the acquisition of an ally that represents about a third of Sangin’s population and is in conflict with much of the rest. Time will tell.

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  • James says:

    I recall with much fanfare an interesting post on one of these threads suggesting “legitimizing” Afghanistan’s opium crop by converting it to morphine with the help of the international pharmaceutical industry.
    Could this be feasible and has anyone seriously considered it as a possible viable option?

  • The Alokozai may be thin on the ground in Sangin, but they have reinforcements to the east.
    Abdul Hakim Jan was one of those Alokozai leaders assassinated, at a dog fight north of Kandahar in February of ’08.

  • Hulkhogansthemesong says:

    I remember that thread. I don’t think that could work, to be honest. Afg. in it’s current state [forever
    ?] is too corrupt. Theft from workers, extortion from “militants” and extremist raids would plague that operation. Security costs would cut medical companies [or whomevers’] profits thereby making it unappealing to them. Sure, the army could protect it but, wherever they came from….

  • Anonymous says:

    And now for something completly diffrent,a year ago briefing in MOD’s HQ building in London, on Thursday 7 January 2010.Gen.Carter:
    I’m going to give you an example. The British battle groups that over the last 18 months have had a very difficult time in Sangin have been in the middle of a complicated tribal dispute. When Sher Mohammed Akindzada was removed from the governorate of Helmand at the end of 2005, the delicate balance of power that existed between his Alizai tribe and that of Dan Mohammed Khan up in Sangin, who are Allakozai, was disrupted. The upshot of that was that the Ishaqzai tribe, which had been reasonably downtrodden for several years, saw an opportunity to rise up and have a go at the Allakozai tribe. And Dan Mohammed Khan, the leader of the Allakozai tribe, found himself under significant pressure.
    Now, these battle groups that have been based in Sangin in the district’s centre providing security and stability in that area in partnership with Afghans, have therefore been labelled alongside the Allakozai tribe, and so the Alizai and the Ishaqzaiwho wished to make mischief at the expense of the Allakozai have made life difficult for British battle groups. Understanding those motivations will define a different strategy in terms of working out how you will defeat the problem, than if you simply labelled them as Taliban.
    Hmm,throwback 2005?

  • blert says:

    As the Brits found, ANY promotion/deal with one tribe is viewed with great hostility and resentment by the others.
    Hence, one is MOST unwise to give any publicity to these deals.
    At this time it is imperative that the USMC hook up with the other tribes, too.
    Under no circumstances should the USMC ‘favor’ one tribe. That path = complete disaster.
    The Brits did exactly that, and everything went to Hell in short order. They didn’t even realize what they’d done: by placing their HQ adjacent to one chieftain — hence protecting him — they triggered wholesale sniping and bombing by all the other tribes. Worse, their selectee came from a minor tribe! The Brits never recovered. This is the real reason for their withdrawal from the area. Instead of fighting the Talibs they were fighting the locals — and calling them Taliban!
    ( When the press arrives none are told that British forces are really tangling with a local tribe with a mere sprinkling of Taliban support.[ Taliban version of the Green Berets] This particular area of Afghanistan is the most distant from the FATA. Without local support, they’re dead.
    So what Britain created was a contest between the tribes they ‘sponsored’ and the tribes the Taliban sponsored. Naturally, since all of the Afghanis practice unlawful warfare, as defined in the West, especially no uniforms; the British ended up walking around as targets for hit and run attacks.)
    The USMC has brought drones, tanks and a fresh attitude. Hit and run does not work when drones hound opfors from the sky. The occasional ‘stiff resistance’ is a loser when buddy M1s show up.
    The ability of the Taliban to milk juice from the local hydro-project needs to come to an end.

  • Nobody says:

    One is always going to play favor to one tribe over another. As in life, there must be winners and losers. In southeast Afghanistan (after much killing) we found that careful management and balance is required when dealing with tribes. One tactic was demonstrating to all the neighborhood tribes that their ‘collective interests’ could be better strengthened when they were addressed as a group. Before agreeing to any project for one tribe we console the other tribes. If a tribe chooses warfare and hostility to GIRoA or Coalition forces and it’s neighboring tribe then we seek to isolate that tribe by empowering the other cooperative tribes around it. We continually invite the aggressor to attend the shura and leverage development of competing tribes against them. Sooner or later they will either come on board or be destroyed.
    We sought out developmental projects that were beneficial to all the local tribes and economy. Once they were on the hook for the projects they were easily swayed to commit to a weekly shura at the local district center thus bringing together multiple rivals in a traditional setting. We used the Pashtunwali honor code and shame to keep them to their agreements. We empowered the locally elected shura leader by reviving traditional tribal systems of rule and order that had been eradicated by years of Taliban influence and warfare.
    Agreements in writing must be signed by tribal elders and adhered to. In the security agreements there must be clearly defined (by the shura) penalties for failure to live up to the agreements. Destruction of one’s home and a hefty financial penalty imposed on the tribe is one way of ensuring the tribe will stick to the agreements. I know that every single location in Afghanistan has it’s unique set of conditions that plague security efforts there, we did not have the opium problem that Sangin has but we had major ratlines crossing throughout our district right on the border. I think most of our tenuous success has resulted from the ability to separate religious extremist ideology of the Taliban and label them as foreign to the traditional conservative tribal culture and rule of law of the tribes themselves. They may tolerate us because they know we are not permanent and pose less of a risk to their tribal identity than do the Taliban. The Taliban want to change the way the tribes rule permanently. We simply became the default vehicle by that opened their eyes to the threat.

  • Cordell says:

    @ Hulkhoganthemesong
    Legalizing poppy growing would indeed reduce Afghan corruption and defund the Taliban. When the U.S. banned the production, distribution and sale of alcohol during Prohibition in the 1920’s, corruption increased along with criminal gang activities, violence and profits. It corrupted the courts as well as local and state governments. Prosecutors and judges either feared for their lives or were on the “take.” (Rent the movie, “The Untouchables” sometime.) Ending Prohibition eventually allowed the FBI and local law enforcement to get a handle on organized crime, but the rise of illegal drug use gave a lifeline to the Mafia and inner city gangs.
    Controlling poppy growing is not that difficult. One merely establishes contracts with farmers for their acreage. The contracted acreage is then entered into a database and associated mapping system. Since opium yields per acre for a given area can be determined, the farmer must sell the contracted amount to the legal central government buyer or explain the shortfall. Meanwhile, one conducts aerial surveys to find poppy growers not under contract and destroy their fields. This carrot and stick approach ensures that over 95% of the opium production is grown legitimately and channeled to medical use, thereby defunding the Taliban and their terrorist activities. Because they would then rely mainly on extortion to fund their operations, the locals would increasingly side with the coalition — at least covertly if not openly — just as locals sided with the U.S. in Iraq following AQ’s violence and extortion.
    The currently illegal opium trade easily eclipses the minor percentages of opium production diverted to illegal channels under the above plan. In fact, coalition forces have largely turned their back on the problem of poppy growing lest they anger Afghan farmers whom they wish to win over to their side. (Crop substitution efforts by U.S. agencies have seen only limited acceptance; poppy growing is typically more profitable.) By keeping poppy growing illegal but tacitly accepted, we help fund the insurgency against us.

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    Pharma Co’s could buy the entire crop, its just like Prohibition, and that did not work. The UK’s mission was underfunded, not enough helo’s, CAS, even armor. Still the Brits are some of the best Soldiers in the world. Its a sign of the times. We are slowly being sapped of men and $$. As for the tribes, they are a maze, and we are trying to install a strong central gov? I don’t think it will work. The Marines got the right idea, i hope it sticks.


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