THE BLOG
08/28/2010 01:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Anbar to FUBAR

The year 2010 saw the discovery by U.S. military planners that Afghanistan has tribes. The phrase "Anbar Awakening!" leapt to the lips of these savants, and a new strategy-of-the-week was born. Re-empower the tribal chiefs, they cried, and they will keep the Taliban at bay.

The Anbar Awakening, as you recall, took place in Iraq's most violent and intractable province. It was there that al Qaeda of Mesopotamia was wreaking havoc on both U.S. forces and innocent Iraqis. The Awakening coincided with both a high level of violence and the vaunted U.S. "surge" that flooded the province with tens of thousands of fresh troops. The Sunni sheikhs and their armed men, combined with the beefed-up U.S. firepower and air support, made quick work of al Qaeda in Anbar, setting the stage for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. As to the reasons for the Awakening, and why the tribal leaders went for it, I have not seen a better, clearer explanation than the one John A. McCary articulated in the January, 2009 edition of The Washington Quarterly. According to McCary, the Awakening was about two pretty basic human motivators, money and power, and the Sunni chiefs were feeling short on both. The U.S troop surge, he argues, was less effective than the "high-level U.S. policy debate over withdrawing troops in the near future, which led to a perception that the United States was (and still is) leaving, was no longer a long-term occupying threat, and was therefore a better short-term ally [than al Qaeda]." The real long-term threat to the chiefs' power, and to their very lives, was al Qaeda. By cooperating with the U.S. forces, the sheikhs could not only regain power but regain their wealth in the process. They had watched as al Qaeda took over the rackets in the province - drugs, smuggling, extortion - enriching itself via the enterprises the sheikhs had controlled for many years. The U.S. military was now giving money and arms directly to the sheikhs, bypassing Baghdad's corrupt and dithering politicians. The direct funding empowered the chiefs to regain control of those illegal lucrative activities.

That's Anbar. Now let's parachute into Afghanistan, where FUBAR is the operative acronym. I'm sure you know what it stands for: Fucked Up Beyond All Repair. In Afghanistan, there are also tribes, and tribal leaders, so if we follow the Anbar Awakening model, all we have to do is shower money and arms on the tribes and they will kick ass for us, right? Well, yes, there are tribes in Afghanistan, hundreds of them, within broad ethnic categories, the broadest of which is Pashtun. The Pashtuns are not strictly a tribe, they are an ethnic group. Others include Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazaras.

The problem with trying to deal with tribal leaders in Afghanistan is that over the last thirty years of warfare in the country they have lost much of their authority. During the war against the U.S.S.R., during the mujaheddin wars that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and during the brief Taliban era from 1996 to 2001, the traditional tribal chiefs were pretty much neutered and replaced, first by warlords and then by Taliban overlords. Many of those warlords and overlords are the guys we are now fighting, which makes them sort of difficult to deal with, and the tribal leaders who are neither warlords nor Taliban commanders seem to have very short life expectancies.

Occupying armies, especially ones from far away such as the U.S. military in Afghanistan, never defeat indigenous insurgencies. They can be defeated only from within, by a combination of a strong and respected government, and a strong and respected military. That combination is essential to winning the popular support necessary to quell an insurgency. Colombia is one example, though it is a far different place than Afghanistan. The Uribe government gave no quarter to the FARC guerrillas, and the Colombian military grew smarter and stronger, thanks in part to U.S. (non-combat) assistance, until it became the most respected institution in Colombia, above even the Catholic church. The once-feared FARC was driven into a corner of the jungle. But in Afghanistan, the Karzai government is weak, corrupt and ineffective and has lost the respect of the population. The Afghan army and police are also weak, corrupt and disrespected. The Anbar strategy might work in Pashtun Afghanistan if there were bona fide tribal leaders to empower. Instead there's Wali Karzai, the president's brother, who is widely reputed to be warlord, drug lord, and CIA asset all rolled into one. Instead of Anbar, we have FUBAR.