SANGIN, Afghanistan—When members of the Alikozai tribe rose up against the Taliban in this critical insurgent stronghold, neither coalition forces nor the government in Kabul lifted a finger to help them.
The Taliban promptly crushed the rebellion. And just to make sure everyone got the message, they chained the uprising’s leader to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to another province.
That was three years ago, when Afghanistan was not a priority for the Bush administration, coalition forces lacked resources and the Afghan government was worried about stirring up tribal rivalries.
Now, U.S. Marines hope they can persuade the Alikozai that this time will be different. They want the tribesmen to take up arms again and help drive the Taliban out of this river valley in southern Helmand province’s Sangin district—the deadliest piece of real estate for coalition forces this year.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, cites the development of local village defense forces as key to countering the Taliban. Petraeus used a similar tactic to help turn around the war in Iraq, but the Afghan government has been somewhat reluctant because of the history of armed militias destabilizing the country.
“Local defense forces are something we will try to implement throughout Sangin district, especially in the Upper Sangin Valley,” said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which assumed responsibility last month for Sangin.
For years, insurgents have controlled the Upper Sangin Valley, where the Alikozai are the largest tribe. The Taliban have used it as a base to collect drug money and destabilize critical parts of Afghanistan.
The area also contains the main road to the Kajaki dam, the biggest source of electricity for southern Afghanistan. The dam is running only at partial capacity, because it has not been safe enough to transport materials and equipment needed to install a third turbine.
The top NATO commander in Helmand, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, hopes a deal with the Alikozai could change that.
“The easiest solution would be a political solution where they said we are not going to tolerate the Taliban and we are going to start up a local police force and help provide you security for that road,” Mills said. “That would be an ideal solution as opposed to forcing our way up that road in a military way.”
Some Alikozai tribal leaders have expressed interest in once again taking on the Taliban, but are skeptical that the Marines and the Afghan government would provide the necessary support, according to Phil Weatherill, a British government adviser who has worked in Sangin since 2009 and has had close contact with the Alikozai.
“The Alikozai have always wanted to come back to government,” Weatherill said. “Unfortunately, NATO has very little credibility up there, and that’s what we have to work on and prove we can actually support them.”
The Alikozai first rose up in May 2007 because they were tired of the presence of foreign Taliban fighters and insurgents from other areas of Afghanistan, many of them from a rival tribe, the Alizai. Their request for help from both coalition forces and the Afghan government was declined because of a lack of resources and concern about getting involved in a tribal dispute, according to Weatherill and the Marines.
The Alizai then killed many of the Alikozai tribal leaders or forced them to flee the area, said Weatherill.
Some Alikozai tribesmen ended up joining the Taliban because they had no other choice. But many continue to resent what they see as an occupation by foreign insurgents who have planted homemade bombs throughout the Upper Sangin Valley as a defensive measure, said Maj. Robert Revoir, the operations officer for the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion, which has been in the area for the past few weeks.
“They want freedom of movement and don’t want to be fed Taliban propaganda 24/7 over the radio,” Revoir said. “They need access to the district government so they can have a voice to state their grievances.”
The Sangin district governor, Mohammad Sharif, said it is critical for the Marines to ask Alikozai elders what they would need before standing up against the Taliban.
“They likely need logistical support, food, ammunition and weapons,” Sharif said. “We need to give them support in advance so they can stand up again.”
The Marines have targeted pockets of foreign Taliban fighters just south of the Upper Sangin Valley in recent months, partly because the operations were requested by the Alikozai, said Morris, the battalion commander.
Some Alikozai tribesmen have also requested that the Marines set up patrol bases in the Upper Sangin Valley as a security guarantee, said Weatherill. But he warned that the Marines must be careful that whatever operations they conduct in the area not be viewed as just another form of foreign occupation.
“You could be at risk of the young lads of the Alikozai turning around and saying these guys are in my backyard and picking up the AK-47s again,” said Weatherill.
Critics of the local defense force initiative argue that arming tribesmen risks creating militias that are difficult for the Afghan government to control. The government has tried to mitigate that risk by mandating that such forces must report to the Interior Ministry.
The program also risks exacerbating tribal rivalries in a way that could benefit the Taliban. Alikozai tribal leaders who used to dominate the Helmand provincial government systematically excluded another tribe in Sangin, the Ishaqzai, from positions of power. That drove many Ishaqzai into the hands of the Taliban.
But the Marines and their advisers, desperate for a way to stabilize the bloody valley, have decided it’s worth the risk.
“A local solution is the only way forward,” Weatherill said.