For most of the decade, I've been pointing out that feudalism would work better in Afghanistan than nation-building. Europeans came up with feudalism to defend themselves from the Vikings after the breakup of Charlemagne's empire. It's cheap, it doesn't require much organizational capital, it doesn't need a national language, and it doesn't require a Charlemagne. Feudalism doesn't work particularly well, but, for minimal security needs, it does work.
Now, they're finally thinking feudally in Washington. Fred Kaplan says in Slate:
... special-operations forces have begun to help anti-Taliban militias in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the insurgents are concentrated. These militias have risen up spontaneously in certain tribal groups, but U.S. commanders hope that they can use the example of these revolts "to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland." ...
... it has drawn high-level attention to a 45-page paper by Army Maj. Jim Gant, the former team leader of a special-ops detachment stationed in Konar province. The paper, called "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan," recounts his experiences with organizing "tribal engagement teams" to help local fighters beat back the Taliban–and it spells out a plan to replicate these teams across the country. ...
The premise of his paper is that Afghanistan "has never had a strong central government and never will." Rather, its society and power structure are, and always will be, built around tribes–and any U.S. or NATO effort to defeat the Taliban must be built around tribes, as well. The United States' approach of the last seven years–focusing on Kabul and the buildup of Afghanistan's national army and police force–is wrongheaded and doomed. ...
A tribe-centered strategy may appeal to Obama in several ways. First, it keeps the Afghan people, not American occupiers, at the center of the operation. The U.S. soldiers live alongside the tribes, build trust, train them, supply them, gather intelligence from them, and fight with them. We are supporting players, not the lead.
But what happens when our friendly tribes stop fighting whoever it is we want them to fight, and start fighting our other friendly tribes?
That's where feudalism comes in.
Gant has no illusions about the difficulty of working with tribes. He spells out the risks of getting enmeshed in internecine feuds. Several times during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, our guerrilla allies called in U.S. air and artillery strikes on what they said were "Taliban targets" but in fact turned out to be gatherings of rival tribes.
An explicit and essential part of Gant's strategy is to draw the individual tribal teams into a network of tribes–first across the province, then the region, then the nation–tied in to the Kabul government through a web of mutual defenses and the supply of basic services. He's less clear on the mechanics of how this "bottom-up" approach to national unity takes hold, but he recognizes that without it the Taliban can gain advantage by playing the tribes off against one another.
Or, then again, maybe in Afghanistan the future is always futile.