We're Training the Next Bin Laden

The American plan to arm local Afghans has raised concerns about the rise of militias and the risk of civil war. By Ellen Knickmeyer.

07.20.10 12:11 AM ET

As 70 dignitaries, including Hillary Clinton, met in Kabul today to broker the expansion of Afghanistan's military, a rogue local army trainer gunned down two U.S. trainers and an Afghan soldier. Ellen Knickmeyer reports on the risk of arming Afghans too early.

The latest American plan in Afghanistan—arming villagers against the Taliban—has in recent days created a fierce international debate, with some observers warning that the U.S. is creating even more warlords in a country already crawling with militias and risking a reprise of the civil war that devastated the country during the 1990s. And guns handed out to Afghans, may in time be turned against American troops, they caution.

It's easy enough to see in this new plan the specter of another, older scheme to arm local Afghan fighters—the 1980s support for the Mujahedeen that helped give rise to one Osama bin Laden.

From the time of the Taliban through the U.S. war, many Afghan fighters have felt comfortable "trading turbans.''

But the scariest thing about the plan is that it may be the best option going.

"Handing weapons out to people who have turned out frequently to be of dubious character and more than willing to switch sides" is not a great option, said Alex Vatanka, an editor of the Jane's Islamic Affairs security publications. But, he added, "there are no Plan B's."

Vatanka, who is also a scholar at the Middle East Institute, argued that Afghans have a long tradition of deciding loyalties based on what's in it for them From the time of the Taliban through the U.S. war, many Afghan fighters have felt comfortable "trading turbans''—switching back and forth from the Taliban—based on which side was ahead at the time.

Last week, General David Petraeus won Afghan President Hamid Karzai's approval for the program, which some see as an American acknowledgment that the influence of Karzai's government in key parts of the countryside is stalled or receding, and that the Taliban is gaining ground.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: A Warning in Kabul Citing the inherent factionalism of Afghanistan, the Gulf News newspaper came out against the U.S.-initiated program as did the Los Angeles Times, Thomas Ricks, an author and Foreign Policy writer, chided opponents to the plan for not " getting" Afghanistan.

While not ideal, the plan is the best available option, Col. Lawrence Sellin, a member of the Army Reserves on his second tour in Afghanistan, said by e-mail from Kabul. "It is the best approach to creating local security and staving off the Taliban, in the absence of a fully effective Afghan Army and Police Force."

But by advocating the enlistment of local civilians to fight the Taliban, the United States has underscored the inability of Karzai's administration to direct the fight—or do much of anything else—from Kabul, critics say.

Afghanistan's police and military struggle simply to protect the country's administrative centers and roads, said Michael Semple, a fellow at Harvard University's Carr Center, by Skype text from Pakistan.

To him, there are several "nightmarish scenarios" inherent in the new plan. Besides the risk of U.S.-backed local defense forces simply switching sides to target U.S. and Afghan forces, there is the risk that the village forces will prove too weak to hold on to their new arms, and surrender them to the Taliban, Semple said.

Furthermore, by arming Afghanistan's Pashtun (the ethnic group that form the base for the Taliban,) the United States and Karzai's government risk scaring the country's other ethnic groups into arming against the Pashtun.

And finally there is the real risk that the funds for these local forces in the villages will be lost to the notorious Afghan corruption, Semple said.

Ultimately, however, the Local Defense Forces are the only option on the table, Semple agreed. "The reality of insurgent penetration in villages is why they will have to do it."


Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad and Cairo. Before coming to the Post, she was the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. This year, she graduated from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.