In the Arena

More on McKiernan

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The Washington Post has an interesting tidbit today on the McKiernan sacking. Apparently, the general was cautious about standing up local militias to defend against the Taliban, an experiment that has recently begun in Wardak Province:

One senior government official involved in Afghanistan policy said McKiernan was overly cautious in creating U.S.-backed local militias, a tactic that Petraeus had employed when he was the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

“It’s way too modest,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t have 2009 to experiment in Wardak province,” where one such militia has been set up. “I think we’ve got about two years in this mission. The trend lines better start swinging in our direction or we’re going to lose the international community and we’re going to lose Washington.”

But McKiernan’s caution may have been the right impulse. Here is the basic problem: unlike Iraq, where tribal Awakening Councils were stood up to fight the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorists–who were mostly foreign imports–the local militias in Afghanistan are being asked to fight their own Pashtun brothers, the Taliban. When I was in Afghanistan last month, a Pashtun from Wardak warned Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen that many of the people signing up for the local militia were from the Hazara minority. “It won’t work,” the man said. “The Pashtun see this as not our government.”

In the end, the only possible solution in Wardak and other majority Pashtun provinces is reconciliation with the local Taliban (who are, in truth, a closer equivalent to the Sunni tribes in Anbar who changed sides and became the Awakening Councils). The best possible deal would be acceptance of the Taliban into the Afghan governing structure in return for a pledge–and supporting intelligence–that they will no longer give aid and comfort to Al Qaeda (who are, once again, mostly foreign fighters). This won’t be easy to achieve, or enforce, especially not after the last eight years–on the other hand, the Al Qaeda-style religious extremists are compiling an unblemished record of being kicked out of the areas where they’ve taken control because their brand of Islam is so inhumane and irreligious. If we can’t figure out a way to come to terms with the majority of local Taliban, who are religious and Pashtun but not Al Qaeda-style extremists, we will not be successful in Afghanistan.