US President Barack Obama has unveiled a troop surge in Afghanistan that will put 17,000 more American soldiers on the ground. But his plan still lacks clarity on how to save a faltering military mission.
His administration risks repeating the very mistakes that have come to haunt the security of the free world. In the same way the US created mujahideen (holy warriors)—by funnelling billions of dollars worth of arms to them in the 1980s—it has now embarked on a plan to establish local militias in various Afghan provinces.
The covert US war against the nine-year Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan helped create Frankensteins such as Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar. That war, fuelled by the CIA, contributed to the jihad culture that today plagues Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, while trying to salvage the overt war that the US has waged in Afghanistan since 2001, Obama is unwittingly seeking to repeat history.
Under this new programme, designed to complement the US surge of troops, lightly trained militias will be set up in the provinces to help enforce order. According to the Afghan interior minister, the US will pay for upkeep and provide them with Kalashnikov automatic rifles as well as other arms. The militia are modelled on the US-established Sunni “awakening councils” in Iraq, which have been credited with significantly reducing violence. The first such Afghan militia units, already being trained, are set to be rolled out shortly in Wardak province.
At the same time, Washington is unveiling a quantum jump in aid to Pakistan, tripling its non-military assistance to an annual $1.5 billion and maintaining its existing munificent level of military aid without seeking to bring the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency under civilian oversight. This is also a repeat of the 1980s, when the ISI was the main conduit in the covert war and the US provided multi-billion-dollar aid packages to Pakistan while turning a blind eye to the ISI’s nuclear smuggling and other illicit transborder activities.
There is real danger that the new Afghan militias could go out of control and threaten regional and international security. Already, according to a US government accountability office report, the Pentagon cannot account for 87,000 weapons handed out to Afghan security forces, and Washington admits misuse of its military aid by Pakistan. These abuses will only grow under Obama’s plan.
Obama risks enlarging the community of gun-toting militants and expanding the militancy-triggered Islamist ruins to Pakistan’s east and Afghanistan’s west. Instead, he should step up funding to train and build a larger multiethnic Afghan national army.
Institution-building holds the key to a more moderate, viable Afghanistan and Pakistan. These two countries are a tangled web of competing tribes and ethnic communities, and their ultimate stability depends on national institutions such as a secular educational system and security forces that are under civilian oversight. Building such institutions is not easy in the face of mushrooming madrassas—the Islamic schools that have become jihad factories—and spreading militancy. But it is the objective that the international community must continue to focus on—a goal that has prompted India to pour $1.2 billion in development aid into Afghanistan.
Obama is right to give priority to this region and to try to rectify a war that had been undermanned and underfinanced for so long because of Iraq. But to establish militias is to seek a dangerous short cut in a region already swarming with armed militiamen.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org