While military officers wait for President Obama to conclude his agonizingly slow review of Afghanistan policy, they've been reading a paper by an Army Special Forces operative arguing that the only hope for success in that country is to work with tribal leaders.
This tribal approach has widespread support, in principle. The problem is that, in practice, the United States has often moved in the opposite direction in recent years. Rather than supporting tribal leaders, American policies have sometimes had the effect of undermining their ability to stand up to the Taliban.
The paper by Maj. Jim Gant, "One Tribe at a Time," has been spinning around the Internet for a month. It contends that in an Afghanistan that has never had a strong central government, "nothing else will work" than a decentralized, bottom-up approach. "We must support the tribal system because it is the single, unchanging political, social and cultural reality in Afghan society," he insists.
Gant recounts his experience leading a Special Forces "A-team" in Konar province in 2003. His soldiers briefly became part of the Pashtun tribal family, fighting alongside a local leader whose followers straddled the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's a passionate story that evokes an Afghan warrior culture that has enticed foreign adventurers for 150 years.
But will this tribal strategy work? The United States thought so in 2003 and 2004, when Gant and many others were sent out with small teams to chase al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. Back then, I'm told, the Special Forces teams had more than 5,000 tribal fighters under arms.
But U.S. officials began to worry that by arming the tribes, they were encouraging Afghanistan's old curse of warlordism. So after Hamid Karzai's election as president in 2004, they focused instead on developing Afghanistan's national army and police. They persuaded the Tajik tribal militia known as the Northern Alliance, a key ally against al-Qaeda, to lay down its weapons.
Unfortunately, this top-down strategy left the tribes vulnerable to the Taliban, which was rebuilding its networks. As the Taliban's influence spread, U.S. strategists looked again to the tribes as a counterinsurgency force. They were encouraged by the example of Iraq, where the Sunni tribal movement had stopped al-Qaeda's advance.
As tribal politics have come back in fashion in Afghanistan over the past year, a number of experiments have been launched. The Afghan Public Protection Program is working with tribal leaders in Wardak province and elsewhere. The Community Defense Initiative is recruiting and training local militias in western Afghanistan. Across the country, CAAT units (short for Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team) are working on local development and security projects.
The U.S. approach in Afghanistan now is a mix of national and local, government and tribe, top-down and bottom-up. There are frantic plans to expand the national army and police, even as the Northern Alliance rearms its fighters. That's one reason Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategy is confusing -- it's going in several directions at once, looking for game-changing opportunities to halt the Taliban's advance.
This jumble of ad hoc ideas isn't necessarily a bad thing: Similar experimentation in Iraq helped produce the unlikely network that finally began to improve security there. But it requires a basic decision by the White House that the fight in Afghanistan is worth the human, economic and political price.
Obama's slow-motion process of decision carries its own costs. The president has been so concerned about finding an early off-ramp that the public must wonder whether he really wants to get on at all. In the latest Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent say that the war hasn't been worth it, up 13 points from last December. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the delay has helped prompt a new wave of capital flight as Afghans rush to get their money out before the United States pulls the plug.
This is a transactional White House, so the president is looking for deliverables: a new commitment by Karzai to fight corruption; a new pledge by NATO allies to send more troops; a new plan to speed the training of Afghan forces. That checklist may help reassure Obama, but in the end, he will still have to roll the dice.
Even Maj. Gant, the gung-ho Special Forces operative, agrees there's only a limited time to make any policy work: "Make no mistake," he writes, "the people (or politicians) of the US will get tired of the war and will eventually make the US military pull out." Obama's decision, in effect, is how much time to buy.