Getting the Tribal Leaders on Board
The scenic Afghan town of Paghman, just 25 kilometres West of Kabul saw a suicide attack killing seven persons including three children and an Italian military engineer on 24 November. In the first week of December there were again a couple of attacks in and around the Capital killing Afghan army soldiers and civilians many of them children. While suicide bombers have struck inside the capital so far the high intensity and frequency of attacks in the proximity is raising fears of what the Senlis Council report on Afghanistan recently alluded to, the Taliban closing on Kabul in 2008.
In Afghanistan, anyone who controls Kabul is in command of the country, while in the other regions; it is Kandahar, in the south, Herat in the West and Mazar e Sharif in the North. The Taliban is determined to get closer to Kabul and has been attempting to do so over the year. Suicide attacks alone may not denote control of a capital city particularly Kabul which is heavily fortified, however it shakes up confidence of people in the government and impacts heavily on morale of security forces as well as the general populace.
Another aim of the Taliban is to reach areas which were considered safe so far. Heavy penetration of Farah the Western province bordering Iran has been noticed while Baghlan in the North was the scene of the biggest suicide attack in Afghanistan in October. This is surely putting pressure on International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and NATO which are constrained by limited numbers and caveats under which many of the main contingents are operating.
Thus two major problems face NATO today. The first relates to protection against suicide attacks which are showing an increasing trend. The Baghlan bombing could also have been a pre planned IED operation. That the Taliban is not involved in the same as per its own statement cannot be taken at face value given that there have been large number of casualties in children which no group will like to own up given the sensitivity of civilian deaths. However it is apparent that Al Qaeda or HEI could also have conducted this vicious attack. On the other hand the United Nations as well as the Afghan government has blamed the local administration for security lapses. These can be overcome by tightening up the system and increasing awareness of the threat faced by the population.
The second issue is of retention of control of remote and outlying districts of the country. This has been a major failing of NATO due to lack of sufficient troops. Thus Musa Qala where an offensive is just being undertaken by British and Afghan forces has been under Taliban control since February. This is the key province which also controls a large swathe of poppy fields in the Helmand region as well as areas around the Kajaki dam. Other areas such as Bakwa have been controlled by the Taliban for short periods.
A recent report in the Times, London indicated that the Taliban have disrupted aid activity in a large tract of the country in the South and the East. While the Afghan Army and Police are expected to provide the slack in strength of the 50,000 strong NATO forces, their capability is severely limited at present. So what is the way out.
For maintaining peace and stability in Afghanistan, greater reliance on tribal leaders may have to be made to overcome shortage of troops in the country. This is evident with example of Arghandab in Kandahar, where the Taliban were kept at bay by Mullah Naqib. Immediately on his death, the rebels retaliated in strength. The Afghan Army jointly with Canadian forces succeeded in overcoming the Taliban and restore order and the son of Naqib assumed control. This example amply highlights the importance of winning over the local tribal leader.
NATO leadership may have to creatively employ potential of such leaders, many of whom are mistakenly being called, ï¿½war lordsï¿½ to gain and retain control of territory particularly in remote areas where reach of security forces is limited. Large militias may not be required for the purpose, but a core armed group of loyal tribesmen can provide an effective screen for advance information and shield for proactively denying the Taliban access to the areas. These will also facilitate rapid reaction by regular NATO or Afghan army forces once heavy Taliban movement is noticed.
With no hope of any accretion in strength in the near future, a networked model of NATO-Afghan Army/Police-Local tribal leader led core of militia men may be the way ahead in Afghanistan. Evolving a viable solution to contain the Taliban is assuming importance as not just Kabul is under threat but the lives of many children is at stake.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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