There’s the “Sons of Afghanistan” model — that is, standing up tribal or local-based militias to fight the Taliban, or legitimizing those in place — to augment security. That was the so-called Community Defense Initiative that worried, among other people, Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan human-rights commission, and for the obvious reasons of Afghanistan’s vexed and all-too-recent history with warlordism. Amb. Karl Eikenberry appears to have reined that effort in.

In today’s Times, Dexter Filkins reports on a different model. A 400,000-strong tribe in eastern Afghanistan, the Shinwari, is ready to oppose the Taliban for the low low price of $1 million in development projects. Filkins caveats the Shinwari deal appropriately: it’s delicate and could fall through and deliverability is an open question. All caveats to keep in mind. To that I’d add their pledge to “burn down the home of any Afghan who harbored Taliban guerrillas,” which, if applied, would be… uncool and Conan-like.

But. Look at their opening pledge to “send at least one military-age male in each family to the Afghan Army or the police in the event of a Taliban attack.” If you’re trying to flip tribes — and I have a loooooong record of extreme wariness about this strategy, going back years; it’s all Googleable — then this is the way to do it: tied to the institutions of the state, rather than to themselves. Obviously, there are reasons to doubt such a thing happening. But if the opening bid is for joining the ANSF, than that’s something the U.S. military and the Karzai government have to nurture and capitalize on. The Shinwari desire for the direct infusion of $1 million is ostensibly tied to the corruption of the local government officials. True or not, it’s an opportunity for the seizing — push the Shinwari closer to the government; and pressure the government to reform by this oh-so-lamentable decision to send money to the Shinwari; and most definitely to protect the population, starting with the Shinwari, from the inevitable Taliban reprisal.

Tribal politics is something that under most circumstances the U.S. shouldn’t play, because it probably lacks the capacity to understand them with remotely the granularity required. But the opportunity here to reverse Taliban momentum — a necessary task for ending the war — is wide open. And for once, it appears as if the U.S. is learning from earlier mistakes.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman