Small Wars Journal

An Afghan Nahal?

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An Afghan Nahal?

by Gary Anderson

Download the full article: An Afghan Nahal?

It has become an article of faith in the Muslim world to despise Israel, and anything that it has accomplished. But one thing that Israel was able to do was to create a nation out of motley array of people with vastly different cultural and political backgrounds. Part of that was pure survival instinct, and much of the national glue came from the Army in which all Israelis are obligated, at least on paper, to serve. National service truly has provided a "school of the nation" for Israel. However, other Israeli organizations have helped greatly with the nation-building effort. One of those Israeli institutions might serve as a model for assisting us and the Afghan national government as we take on the daunting task of pacifying Kandahar. This organization was called The "Fighting Pioneer Youth"; NAHAL is the Israeli term.

These armed young collective settlers spread out like an ink blot, creating a ring of fortified farm collectives between the growing Jewish population and potentially hostile Arab settlements. This concept also denied Arab guerillas large sanctuary areas from which to stage attacks. The Palestinians don't like to admit it, but the NAHAL movement was a very effective nation- building and counter-guerilla tool; it kept young people employed and out of trouble as well.

Download the full article: An Afghan Nahal?

The author served as a UN observer in Lebanon and Gaza while on active duty in the Marine Corps and has been to Afghanistan several times while conducting a study of Taliban decision making. He also served on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.

About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.


Rex Brynen

Sat, 07/10/2010 - 9:41am

"As a mattter of historical record, the Israelis did not base the South Lebanese Army on the NAHAL concept."

I don't think anyone argued that the SLA were based on the Nahal.

William F. Owen

Sat, 07/10/2010 - 4:57am

IDF doctrine is explicitly based on deterrence. The IDF in the Southern Lebanon were not there to gain popular support or to do anything to help anyone.
They were to conduct irregular warfare aimed at protecting the population in Northern Israel. Proxy forces, such as the SLA were part of that strategy, and the Israelis were very well aware of its limitations.

The Village Leagues is a very sad tale, as they are what become Hamas.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 3:51pm

Hmm...<blockquote>"- Rather than attempt to control the poulation by moving among them, the SLA worked out of FOBs and checkpoints; there was no or very little reconstruction attempted to gain popular support."</blockquote>For some reason that sounds familiar...

Ken White

Gary Anderson (not verified)

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 1:41pm

As a mattter of historical record, the Israelis did not base the South Lebanese Army on the NAHAL concept. Rather, they built it around an existing Christian militia. I had an opportunity to watch it fight for a year as a UN observer and wrote a couple of reports on it:
It failed for three primary reasons:
- Its officers were Christian and the bulk of the troops were Shiia who, if not conscripted outright, were coerced into service
- Rather than attempt to control the poulation by moving among them, the SLA worked out of FOBs and checkpoints; there was no or very little reconstruction attempted to gain popular support
- The Israeli policy of mass punishment for AMAL and Hezbollah attacks precluded any attempt at gaining population support, even if the SLA had been configured to attempt it...Anderson

Rex Brynen

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 12:56pm

I also can't see this model working in the Afghan context, given the very fundamental differences. As Wilf and Tequila note, Nahal comprised young men who <i>a priori</i> were both ideologically driven and felt that their society's very survival was threatened by an external enemy. That is hardly the case in Afghanistan. I also think the parallels with the SoI are poorly drawn.

(A closer parallel might be Israeli efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to develop proxy allies among Palestinians in the West Bank, through the Village Leagues--which was a failure.)

Finally, any attempt to recruit local irregular allies has to be seen in the context of local perceptions of momentum. Why risk your life defending a worksite when you sense the Taliban are winning, and you'll be stuck on the wrong side of the fence? If you're a local contractor, doesn't this make you more of a target--and increase your incentive to pay protection money to the Taliban to reduce the risk of attack?

This isn't to say that irregular militias and self-defence forces don't have a role to play. However it is a complex issue, not easily resolved by borrowing foreign models.

Gian: Actually, I think this is a case where <b>more</b> social science (a category in which I would include historians) would have helped identify the drawbacks of the approach ;)

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 10:08am

I am more struck by the honest belief in the presumption that a foreign occupying Army can select a model of social change from the past, and then apply it in present day Afghanistan with the promise of success of changing their society. I guess this is what some Coin experts have often called "armed social science."

Dont the articles recommendations really signify the hubris of unlimited American power in the troubled spots of the world?


tequila (not verified)

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 9:26am

My first reaction was like Wilf's - I couldn't think of a less relevant example than a bunch of armed Israeli settlers as a model for Afghanistan.

COL Anderson's example is more like armed reconstruction crews. The major problem I see is, however, one of motivation and capability. What is to prevent one of these units selling their weapons and their supplies off to the Taliban? A smaller profit than finishing the project, perhaps, but much less risky than defending it against a determined opposition. Also, even assuming the will to fight, how long could these reconstruction crews sustain themselves? It wouldn't take more than a few overrun crews to demotivate the others. Given how often isolated ANP garrisons have been overrun and slaughtered, one wonders how even less formalized and trained groups could last.

William F. Owen

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 7:47am

Nice idea and sentiment, but the concept of the Nahal was based firmly in secular Zionism, with a strongly socialist tendency. It was/is the very antithesis of family and tribe.
You sacrifice the interests of you and your family for the greater good of the nation.

I'm not sure that could be made to work in A'Stan.