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Proceed with Caution on Afghan Tribal Strategy

Interviewee: Thomas H. Johnson, Director, Culture and Conflict Studies, Naval Postgraduate School
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
December 11, 2008

With attacks against Afghan civilians and soldiers of the international coalition rising, the U.S. military is searching for a new strategy to restore stability. Among the ideas being considered is the enlistment of Afghan tribes to secure areas targeted by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In Iraq the strategy is widely credited with stabilizing Anbar and other restive provinces. But Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, cautions against rushing toward a tribal reconciliation strategy in Afghanistan.

Johnson says the tribal situation in Afghanistan is much more complex than in Iraq. "In Iraq, the coalition forces had the luxury of dealing with tribal councils who helped reconcile differences with different nationalist insurgent groups against a common foreign foe, al-Qaeda," he says. "In the south of Afghanistan, while there are foreigners, this is much more of a local insurgency, where probably 95 percent of the insurgents are homegrown, and only 5 percent are foreign."

Johnson says there are five supertribes and roughly 350 subtribes in Afghanistan, many of which have been involved in violent blood feuds for centuries. "Many of these animosities are based on long historical patterns that still play out in Afghanistan today," and arming or supporting the wrong ones could deepen the country's crisis, Johnson says.

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