BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - Afghan tribes are needed as crucial battlefield allies against the Taliban and other extremists in the same way local militias rose up to oppose insurgents in Iraq, the new military overseer of America's two wars said Thursday.
The tactic has long been endorsed by Gen. David Petraeus — the former top U.S. commander in Iraq whose outreach to Sunni sheiks helped oust al-Qaida-inspired militants from key areas and sharply decreased attacks.
But his latest comments — on his first trip to Afghanistan since taking charge of U.S. Central Command last week — appeared aimed at pressing the Afghan leadership to recognize the need for tribal militia allies at a time when violence in Afghanistan is at its highest levels since 2001.
It also reflects Washington's expected shift in military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and the neighboring tribal areas in Pakistan, which President-elect Barack Obama has described as the main showdown against the resurgent al-Qaida, Taliban and other militants.
"This is a country in which support of the tribes, of the local communities, for the overall effort is essential," Petraeus told The Associated Press at the massive Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. He added that Afghanistan has not had "a tradition of central government extending into the far reaches of its provinces and its districts."
Petraeus declined to discuss details of efforts — spearheaded publicly by President Hamid Karzai's government — to bring Afghan militiamen into the battle alongside Afghan forces, U.S. soldiers and other NATO-led troops.
Yet Afghanistan poses even more potential complications than the so-called Awakening Council movement in Iraq.
More than 150 major tribes range across the eastern and southern border lands with Pakistan — where the majority of the extremist attacks occur — and any military alliances with selected groups risk stirring rivalries and internal power struggles in regions outside central government control.
The tribes in the areas are almost exclusively Pashtun, the majority group in Afghanistan. Perceptions of special favors to already powerful Pashtun tribes — including pay and possible weapons supplies — could bring backlash from other ethnic groups with their own militiamen and warlords that clashed in brutal civil wars in the 1990s.
In Iraq, the equation was different: the Awakening groups came mostly from the minority Sunnis who lost their privileged status with Saddam Hussein's fall. Now, the Shiite-led Iraqi government is under pressure from Washington to incorporate the militias into the security forces.
The Pentagon did not provide weapons directly to Awakening allies in Iraq. But Petraeus left open the possibility that Karzai could offer arms in exchange for tribal alliances.
"We will certainly support what President Karzai decides to adopt," said Petraeus. "We traditionally have not armed tribes ... But again, we have to see how that evolves here and see what kinds of initiatives and structures might be looked at."
Antonio Giustozzi, an Afghanistan expert at the London School of Economics, said the tribal groups are needed to cover the shortage of regular forces for the entire country: 67,000 Afghan soldiers, about 78,000 police and more than 60,000 U.S. and other foreign troops.
But he questioned whether the tribal chiefs would have the will to fight the Taliban as it strengthens and rebuilds its network in the border regions.
"The assumption is that there are many community leaders who are anxious to fight the Taliban, although I suspect that may no longer be the case in most areas," said Giustozzi. "In the end, I believe it will boil down to bribing people into joining militias. How military effective these are going to be remains to be seen."
Across the border in Pakistan, the government in Islamabad has already started arming tribal militias for roles as front line forces against al-Qaida and Taliban safe havens.
And — like in Iraq — the payback from extremists can be deadly. Dozens of government-allied tribesmen have been killed in recent attacks in Pakistan.
The message is clear to any Afghan tribal leader weighing offers to join Kabul's fight. A senior foreign diplomat in Kabul, who has long experience in tribal relations, said there is a risk the effort could backfire if tribes are seen as battling on behalf of foreign troops.
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to speak publicly on internal Afghan affairs.
Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview with the AP that he is "absolutely ready" to reach out to tribes as an auxiliary force. He noted, however, that any deals would have to be in "connection with the Afghan government."
In Afghanistan, U.S. and other foreign troops use local militiamen for security at some bases. But the efforts so far have concentrated on training the country's fledgling security forces.
In the interview, Petraeus said the war in Afghanistan is closely intertwined with the fight in Pakistan, and they need to be tackled together.
But escalating U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal region — at least 17 since late summer — have strained Islamabad's ties with Washington despite some apparent successes against extremists.
Petraeus said recent U.S. missiles have killed three of the top 20 extremist leaders in Pakistan's border zone. He did not identify the leaders killed, but described the attacks as "hugely important."
On Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani warned that the next U.S. president must halt the attacks. The prime minister said the U.S. should share intelligence with his country's military to allow Pakistan to go after the militants.
Washington says Pakistan's tribal areas harbor many of al-Qaida's leaders, including Osama bin Laden.