Tribal Militias

A few days ago I was invited back to The Alyona Show to talk about tribal militias.  You can see Alyona now during these interviews,  but I still ended up looking all over the place like Stevie Wonder.  No idea why I do that…  Alyona  and I ended up talking about two different aspects of the militia issue.  She was more concerned about the abuse angle – that we may be creating armed groups who abuse the population and ignore the rule of law.  I remain more concerned about the economy of force angle – using tribal militias to control key areas, thus sparing our limited manpower for heavily populated areas currently infested with Taliban.

It is hard to get into sync when doing such a short interview but I was able to address a common misconception and that is the use of tribal militia forces to spearhead Special Forces raids.  I am no fan of some of the Special Forces work in Afghanistan because there is no need to hit local compounds with the full SF direct action package which includes the varsity Afghan Commandos (who are very very good) a half dozen or so helicopters, dedicated UAV platforms, dedicated attack jets and AC 130 gunships, etc…   to pick up a few suspected Taliban.  That is a ton of time and money to spend on trying to get villains who may or may not be in the targeted compound.   It is easier and cheaper to drive up in the middle of the day with some ANA troops, knock on the door and ask your target if he wants to come now or does he want to fight?  These guys are inside compounds with 9 foot high walls, it’s not like they can run away – there are four options when faced with deadly force confrontation; fight, flight, posture or submission.  When trapped inside a compound those options are reduced to fight or submission.  If the target wants to fight you can invite him to be a true Pashtun man of honor and let the women and kids out of the compound before you come in to get him.  You can also move the neighbors out of their compounds, and then try to talk them out or bomb them or go in after them… whatever option you want. It is much easier and safer for everyone (except the targets because this is only going to end one way for them) if you would just think things through and take your time.

Watch the interview clip and then read on as I attempt to explain why this “arm the tribal militia” story is even more confusing and complex then you can imagine.

Last night I received a call from my good friend  Chief  Ajmal  Khan  Azizi who had just escaped a serious Taliban ambush.  As I reported in this post last February Chief Azizi had returned to his tribal homelands to coordinate with The Boss on reconstruction projects and to renew his pleading with the American army stationed in his area for support in battling the Taliban.  Ajmal is the chief of a large tribal federation as well as a Canadian citizen.  He has gone hat in hand to London, Kabul and Washington DC to raise support for his beleaguered tribal area, and although he finds a sympathetic audience wherever he goes, what he never gets is a firm commitment to help.  I am not the only one taking up his cause, The Boss has been working with the US Embassy in Kabul and Steven Pressfield published a multi part interview with Ajmal this year too.

Last night as Ajmal was moving through the town of Ali Khel near the Pakistan border, he was ambushed by a platoon of Pakistani Taliban (their accents give them away).  The ambush was initiated with an IED explosion followed by small arms fire (SAF) and RPG’s.  I talked with the chief of the Zazi Valley police, Amir Mohammad who said the Paki’s shot volley after volley from at least 6 RPG’s and they threw over 14 grenades during the fight.  Ajmal called on the near by Afghan Border Police for help and they declined to intervene, so the ambush was not broken until Zazi Valley tribal police (or tribal militia- depends on who’s naming them) reinforcements showed up and drove the attackers back towards Pakistan.  Ajmal lost a truck and had three men wounded.  One of them was seriously wounded and was being transported to Kabul (a five hour drive) in order to get him proper medical care.

Chief Ajmal Khan Azizi, with Shah Mohammad and his Tribal Police chief Amir Mohammad moments after he landed in Gardez last month.
Chief Ajmal Khan Azizi, with Shah Mohammad and his Tribal Police chief Amir Mohammad moments after he landed in Gardez last February.

Forty five minutes of sustained RPK fire from multiple machineguns takes tens of thousands of rounds.  Firing multiple rockets from up to six RPG launchers is also an  extravagant use of ammo given the current rates of consumption by the Taliban.  Somebody really wants to see a tribal leader, who is on our side in this fight, and who controls the critical border lands of the Parrot’s Beak; dead.

Ajmal has a problem as the chief of  an eleven tribe federation; he’s not on good terms with the Karzai government in Kabul. The reason he is on the outs is his insistence that officials appointed by the Kabul government not abuse their powers or positions at the expense of the the local people living in the Zazi valley.  He insists they not steal land, not steal aid money, not encourage the narcotics trade, and to not sell weapons and ammunition across the border to Pakistani Taliban.  Not all the Kabul appointees were able to abide by these simple rules so they were run out of the valley. The Kabul officials went to the US army to complain and, as is typical in most of their country, they were not only believed by the Americans, but supported.  The reason for this is the current ISAF mission statement is based on “supporting GIRoA” (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.)

How many of you have read over and over and over that the biggest obstacle to progress is the thoroughly corrupt and abusive central government?  Here is a recent story on the topic – just one of dozens that will be published this week just as they werre last week and will be the week after next. GIRoA is the problem – we know they are corrupt and operating on personal agendas that start with getting wealthy and end with getting wealthy. So when they come to the Americans saying they were run out of a valley by the tribal chiefs because those chiefs are bad, or Taliban or drug merchants (pick your story but those three are standard complaints from the Karazi regime) – when that happens why do we automatically side with Kabul. I was going to write ‘why would we believe them’ but I don’t think the senior people in the military and State are so stupid or lazy as to be fooled by this bullshit. I may be giving them too much credit.

Ajmal stopped in for a late dinner after driving to Jalalabad from his valley - a dangerous 14 hour trip - he may not look it but he was exhausted
Ajmal stopped in for a late dinner after driving to Jalalabad from Zazi valley  last winter – a dangerous 14 hour trip – he may not look it but he was exhausted

When Alyona asked me about Tribal Militias my first thoughts were about men I know like Ajmal who are walking the fine line between a central government who abuses their positions of trust (I am referring to Kabul not Washington D.C. but it is true for DC too) and the American led ISAF. You would think that ISAF would be bending over backwards to help a tribal federation chief from Canada who is obviously all in with us in battling the Taliban. Ajmal and his association of border tribes are the perfect economy of force option.  They want to drive the Taliban and assorted Pakistani enablers out of their valley.  They have no desire to operate outside of their hereditary lands and inside those lands their is no police abuse because the police answer to the tribal elders. This isn’t a unique situation many areas (but not all) in Afghanistan have strong tribal federations.  This is a viable solution only among the tribes bordering Pakistan in parts of the east and southeast and in remote interior sections of the country.

Attempts by ISAF to use the tribes as militia in other portions of the country have resulted in debacles.  This article from Time is a good example and no doubt the kind of tribal militia related problems which has caught the attention of The Alyona Show and every other person paying attention to this conflict.  This is a complex place requiring solutions tailored to the area, people and situation on the ground at the district level.  Designing a campaign to do that requires decentralized decision making on the ground with small units of infantry who are empowered to provide support as they see fit in their area of operations.  The advantage of operating this way is the ability of these infantry units to build good governance from the bottom up because they are in the position to know what is transpiring, 24/7, in the district administrative centers, which would serve as the area security forces TOC (tactical operations center) too.

Afghanistan is going to hell in a hand basket. As I am sitting here these messages from multiple watch officers just popped up on the Afghanistan security chat room which was established some months back:

22 MAY 10 2012L: COMPLEX ATTACK: KAF: KANDAHAR PROVINCE; KAF subjected to 9 rounds of indirect fire accompanied by SAF. Will update as information becomes available.

2020L Our guys in KAF are reporting 3 rounds…1 near the hotel, 2 near the boardwalk… info on the reported other 6 rkts or the SA.

2027L Reports from RED HORSE that KAF north side is under ground attack, further report that one container (possibly but not confirmed) ECOLOG was hit by a rocket. All this is too preliminary to confirm at this time.

2034L I have unarmed guards on north side of KAF 100 meters from inside  fence line reporting no small arms fire heard in their vicinity, but siren GROUND ATTACK is broad-casted.  Number of rockets is between 4-8.  Situation still developing.

SAF is the acronym for small arms fire which would indicate a ground attack.  Maneuvering a Taliban assault team into small arms range of the gigantic ISAF Kandahar Air Field (KAF) is a tactical feat I do not believe the Taliban could plan and execute. As the watch officers above noted it cannot be confirmed that a ground assault is taking place.  The ground attack earlier this week targeting the  Bagram Airbase outside of Kabul   was a joke – typical amateur hour execution of a poor plan which had zero chance of success.  This is a serious attack.  Normally the Taliban can’t hit anything with rockets but they are winging them inside the fence line now.

We announced to all who would listen that we were going to sort out Kandahar with a major military operation this summer.  Now we have called it off and the locals in the city are questioning our resolve.  The Taliban are testing our resolve as I write this post.  This is not good, especially given the dog and pony show of President Karzai’s recent trip to Washington.  It is going to be a very long summer – I hope we get our bearings soon or more and more of our citizens are going to start to ask why the hell we are here.

12 Replies to “Tribal Militias”

  1. We really ought to quit calling friendly (or at least anti-Taliban) indigenous irregular forces “militias.” Too much negative baggage associated with that term to American readers. Detracts from our strategic communications and perception management.

    Provincial Forces/District Forces/Village Defense Volunteers/Local Defense Initiative . . . anything but “militia.”

    When is Marineastan standing up a Gendarmerie d’Nimruz? The next Herman Hanneken is probably already on the ground out there just chomping at the bit to be turned loose upon all kinds of Bad Guys.

  2. Absolutely amazing that we cannot seem to learn from past experience.

    Marine commanders in Anbar were given wide discretion in figuring out how to get their AO’s under control and they did it.

    Army commanders in Mosul were given similar latitude and made steady progress as well.

    Army units in Baghdad took a slightly different approach but also, eventually figured out what worked there and got it done.

    Afghanistan? The only sign of this happening is with the Marines in Helmand and it looks like the Chief Knuckleheads are getting ready to shut it down because the Marines are too independent. Success be damned.

    Meanwhile Michael Yon is stuck in Thailand.

    Tim: who are good sources of reliable news about what really is going on in A-stan? (Besides yourself, of course)

  3. Sad to hear what happened to Chief Ajmal Khan Azizi near Ali Khel.

    Are there any 1-203 ANA combat battalions near Ali Khel, given that it is near a major trade route from Pakistan [that Chief Ajmal could have called for help]?

    I would be curious to hear perspectives on 203 ANA Corps commanding Major General Abdul Khaliq, 1-203 ANA commanding Brigadier General Mohammed Israr Aqdas, and their forces. Khost and Paktia are their sector.

    Tim, Have you talked to the ANA, ANP and NDS and asked if they monitor the “Afghanistan security chat room”?

    Since you generally operate in Nangarhar, it is probably best to ask you about BG Mohammad Afzal’s 2-201 ANA. Is there a phone number for the ANA that folks in Nangarhar can call if they get into trouble, and how quickly does 2-201 ANA respond to calls for help?

    Maybe in a future post you might consider discussing the list of “911” type emergency numbers you have and how someone in Nangarhar might prioritize which phone number to call in a crisis.

  4. Hello Anan (remember me?),

    I can’t answer any of your questions, and probably wouldn’t if I could.

    I will question why you’re asking them though…


    1. Render, I am drawing a blank. 🙁 Could you help me place you?

      I am interested in the ANSF. Sure as hell hope their chain of command fully appreciate and are using their new lieutenants. For the first time since 2001, the ANA has motivated, educated, english speaking and writing officers throughout their TO/E.

  5. If semantics is the problem with local militias, just call them the National Guard. The difference between private militias maintained by warlords and a sanctioned militia is, presumably, adult supervision. These militias have the same basic mission as our colonial militias…defend the community. The Afghan government would need to provide support and guidance (like, an Afghan ETT to the militia). As an alternative, I know we could find some enthusiastic Army or Marine personnel who’d be willing to take on the task. Bottom line, though, is that this could be a way to open the door to other useful programs to bring the tribes into the fold.

    As for the attacks on Khandahar and Bagram, stupid though they were, they accoomplished their mission. They got into the media loop. The Taliban don’t have to win battles, and probably never will. They just have to get noticed.

  6. English-speaking and writing ANA officers. Wow,that will sure come in handy when they are out engaging with the population and leading their troops. If there were any sense of urgency in this training, you would think that English would be extremely low on the priority list. There are still some old-boy officers around that are pretty good at speaking and writing in Russian (although they admit they don’t use it much and was kind of a waste of time and effort in retrospect).

    I hope there is a good selection of desert in the foreign mentor mess-hall at the training facility.

    1. Mullah, forgive me for disagreeing with you. English is vital. Afghans respect gravitas, education and maturity. “Foreign” education is especially respected. Seeing highly capable professional officers builds pride, nationalism and confidence in the GIRoA and ANSF among Afghan locals. It also stimulates a surge in young Afghans who want to join the ANSF, especially ambitious upwardly mobile ones.

      It also very critically improves how Pakistanis and the rest of the world perceive the ANSF. If Pakistanis gain confidence in the ANSF and believe that an ANSF victory is inevitable, it changes everything. The Pakistanis will try to court the strong horse and turn against the Taliban and AQ linked networks.

      A more capable ANSF also persuades the 52 countries with troops in Afghanistan that the GIRoA and ANSF can win, and increases their motivation to aid the Afghans. A more capable ANSF moves the American political clock past the 2012 elections.

      English is also critical in:
      -allowing Afghans to read manuals and learn how to use their weapons correctly.
      -the ANAAC for obvious reasons
      -calling in CAS
      -communicating and coordinating effectively with the 47 + 4 country ISAF [a big challenge at present]
      -increasing how well Afghans learn from international mentoring and training
      -ensuring that ANSF personal can find high quality jobs after leaving the ANSF, allowing a rapid reduction in the size of the ANSF later on
      -allowing the ANSF to engage in global peacekeeping missions or to train foreign troops [should that be the price Afghanistan has to pay long term for receiving $10 billion a year in annual grants from the international community, and should the GIRoA determine that Afghanistan still needed a large capable force to protect itself from undefeated enemy east of the Durand]
      -increasing the respect fellow ANSF have for their leaders
      -increasing the respect the 51 country ISAF treats the ANSF with
      -increasing ANSF adherence to rules, regulations, formal processes and legal process
      -increasing the capacity of the ANSF to conduct 3 dimensional operations including civilian governance building, and facilitating economic growth (including communication skills with NGOs and businesses)

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