The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Afghan Awakening

Much has been said this week about the decision to create local defence units in Afghanistan, along similar lines (broadly speaking) to the Sunni militias - known as the Awakening - who turned against Al Qaida in Iraq and are recognised as being a major factor in the success of the US surge from 2006 onwards.

Tom Ricks' take on this issue is one of the more level-headed and informed, given his knowledge of the surge in Iraq. He has described that campaign as a strategic military success but a political failure. This apparent paradox is largely down to the fact that, while working with and/or recruiting local (Sunni) militias helped improve security, it also weakened the (Shia) central government and the political and institutional development of the Iraqi State.

In Iraq that was a price the Americans were willing to pay. Given the increased nervousness in the US and elsewhere about the direction of the war in Afghanistan, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many (in the US and elsewhere) would be willing to pay that price again, a fact which will not be lost on Hamid Karzai.

Ricks however puts his finger on the dilemma - while arming local militias can provide sustainable security, it takes a long time. Time, as we all know, is the one thing the international community does not have in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai knows this too.

In that context, it will be extremely interesting to see if this issue crops up during next week's Kabul conference intended to symbolise greater Afghan ownership.

These local militias are probably not quite the kind of Afghan ownership that Karzai had in mind and his reaction to this initiative may well prove crucial.

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