Jalalabad (Afghanistan), Oct 16 : Taking a cue from a recent successful experiment whereby a tribal leader ousted the Taliban from his district in Afghanistan, the US now increasingly wants to encourage other tribal elders in the strife-torn country to do the same.
In what is being described as a substantial policy shift, the US wants to "use tribes to bring law and order to the vast areas of the country beyond the government's authority".
Hajji Malik Zahir, the tribal leader accomplished this, a task which the armies of Afghanistan and America could not over the past seven years, with the help of sticks, knives and small arms which his tribesmen had for self-defence.
"The Afghan government is not competent enough to deal with the dire threats now facing the country. This means working with the tribal leaders," says Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corp., a security consultancy in Arlington, Va., that works with the Pentagon.
It all started after an attack on the district headquarters. Governor Gul Agha Sherzai asked Zahir, a member of his administration and an elder from the area, what could be done. First, Zahir talked to the elders of the district, and then he delivered his message to Governor Sherzai: "I told Sherzai to go back to Jalalabad, and I will be able to defend my area. I don't need a tank, I don't need a plane, I don't even need a single bullet. I will use sticks and I will use the guns my people have to defend themselves."
Together with the elders, Zahir collected 600 volunteers. "But as soon as they [the Taliban] had learned what we decided, they left," Zahir says.
It is efforts like these that the US is seeking to formalize and make part of a coherent Afghan strategy - a dramatic shift from even a year ago, said a report in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM).
The successful uprising of tribal chiefs in Iraq against Al Qaeda - the "Anbar Awakening" - has further created momentum, and also the endemic corruption in President Hamid Karzai's regime.
But, according to the report, such a policy promises great risk and reward. "Done carelessly, it could unleash the tribal and ethnic forces that led to civil war in the early 1990s, warns tribal leader Mr. Zahir, as well as analysts. Yet his experience - and that of aid agencies and local law-enforcement officials - suggests that tribal elders can often deliver results that the government alone cannot," it said.
In a Pentagon briefing last week the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, said: "It seems to me that, with the lead of the government of Afghanistan, engaging those tribes and connecting them to governance - whether it's at the provincial level or the district level - seems to be a smart thing to do to assist with the security of a huge country."
Afghanistan is an enormously complex web of intersecting tribal and ethnic allegiances that must be negotiated with great delicacy. Bolstering one Pashtun tribe in eastern Afghanistan, for example, could upset Tajiks and Hazaras in the north - who feel that their old foes are being strengthened - as well as rival Pashtun clans in the south.
For this reason, a consensus is emerging here and in Washington that whatever program emerges must be run by the Afghan government itself - perhaps by the police or Army. "I would not want [NATO] military commanders to be trying to decide which tribe should they support without letting the Afghan government do that," said General McKiernan.