Afghanistan’s tribal complexity
In the dark
Jan 31st 2008 | SANGIN DISTRICT, HELMAND
Far more than two sides to the conflict
BEARDED like an Old Testament prophet, an old man tugs nervously at the sleeve of the British commander, Major Tony Chattin of the Royal Marines. “The Taliban come from the north and fire from this treeline at your base,” he murmurs. The tip-off in the fields south of the town of Sangin is spot on. An hour later soldiers are exchanging fire with Taliban fighters. British troops glean a lot of information from local people in Helmand, but it is hard to know what to believe. Major Chattin commands a new base nearby. He frankly compares himself to a man trying to work out his surroundings by feeling his way by touch in a darkened room.
It might be a metaphor for the whole campaign, which is leading to so much soul-searching in the West. Two years into their deployment in Helmand, British forces are still learning. The war in Afghanistan is not against a monolithic Taliban movement. In much of the country it is entwined with older struggles rooted in tribalism.
In Helmand a 20-year-old battle involves at least three main factions competing for control of the province’s huge opium trade. The dominant grouping since 2001 has been that of the Akhundzada family, who are members of the Alizai tribe, and their various allies. Sher Mohammed Akhundzada was Helmand’s governor till he was ousted in December 2005 under British pressure over his links to the drugs business. President Hamid Karzai has now called his ouster a mistake, citing the Taliban’s successes in the area since then. It is true that Mr Akhundzada had kept the scale of the fighting in check. But the thuggery of his regime had also provoked widespread anger, and sowed the seeds for the Taliban’s return.
In Sangin, power after 2001 was in the hands a warlord from the Alikozai tribe named Dad Mohammad Khan and his family, allies of the Akhundzadas. Predatory rulers, they favoured their own tribal faction and that of the Akhundzadas, while marginalising other groups, notably the Itzhakzai tribe, which had enjoyed considerable local clout under the Taliban.
In June 2006 40 members of Dad Mohammad’s family were killed in a single day as the Taliban seized back control of the district. Few locals mourned their overthrow. The attackers were all Itzhakzais, according to other tribal leaders. It is not clear which affiliation mattered more: to the tribe, or to the Taliban.
Sensitivity to Afghanistan’s tribal complexity has become all the rage. The American army has deployed anthropologists to help its troops understand the shifting mosaic of tribal interest groups. In Parliament in December, Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, lapsed into Pushto when he talked about beefing up “traditional Afghan arbakai” (ie, tribal policing arrangements); he said Britain needed to “understand the tribal dynamics”.
Easier said than done. A crude ethnic breakdown—about 40% of Afghans are Pushtun, 30% Tajiks, and the rest Hazaras, Turkmen, Uzbeks and others—masks baffling complexity. One veteran says that to fight in Afghanistan “you must approach every village as its own campaign.”
And that means understanding Pushtun tribal culture. There are some 60 Pushtun tribes and 400 sub-tribes, many at odds with each other. Since the 18th century, supremacy has been held almost continuously by the Durrani tribal federation. The NATO invasion of 2001, toppling the Taliban, enabled the three main Durrani tribes, the Popolzai (the tribe of President Karzai), the Barakzai and the Alikozai (Dad Mohammad’s group), to reclaim their dominance. That angered both non-Durranis and some smaller Durrani tribes.
For their part, the Taliban have always held themselves above tribal politics. Indeed, they regard tribal custom as a deviation from sharia law. But where individual tribes feel badly treated, the Taliban are willing allies. Intriguingly, provinces where tribal structures are strongest, such as Paktia, Paktika and Khost, have proved most resistant to Taliban encroachment.
NATO commanders are now studying these areas hard. In Loya Paktia, as the region is known, the Taliban have struggled to gain ground against the ancient code of tribal behaviour known as Pushtunwali (literally, “do Pushtun”). It governs hospitality, honour and revenge. It has self-regulating systems of arbakai, tribal elders and arbitration. Loya Paktia remains startlingly egalitarian and determinedly suspicious of outsiders. Yet, tempting as it is to see such structures as the answer to the Taliban, Pushtunwali is also hostile to the central government and to Western ideals, particularly of education and sex equality. Feuds in Loya Paktia are still often settled by the exchange of women.
Away from Loya Paktia, in the south, and notably in the Taliban heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar, the old tribal structures have eroded. Yet the drug-financed warlords who hold the balance of power are still rooted in the tribal system. This makes them hard to dislodge. But they in turn find it difficult to extend their power across tribal lines. The upshot is perpetually indecisive factionalism.