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Shifting sands at Afghanistan's grass roots

After a visit to a tribal council meeting, a journey dead-ends amid warnings of Taliban and Arab fighters nearby

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 2001


It's 8 a.m., and we three infidels - an Australian and two Americans - are munching a breakfast of almonds and green raisins, and sipping cups of sweet green tea. Our hosts can't join us, because as good Muslims during Ramadan, they must fast from sunup to sundown.

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Today we will witness a tribal shura, or council, which will decide whether the Alizai tribe will support the new post-Taliban government in Kandahar and Kabul. Then, inshallah, or God willing, we will hike into the mountains to see the inside of a cave complex that once housed Osama Bin Laden.

We have no inkling that our trip will soon be cut short.

When we reach the central tribal compound, the shura is already under way. Two dozen men, some middle-aged, others quite elderly, sit cross-legged on a neatly laid out series of prayer mats, their shoes tucked behind them on the gravel. The men are discussing their tribe's future, and whether it is in their tribe's interest to support the new Afghan government that replaced the Taliban.

A double-edged sword

The Taliban had their strong points, the men agree. They brought some peace to Kandahar province, which includes their villages. And they imposed a conservative Islamic government that many Pushtun tribes like the Alizais felt most comfortable with.

But the Taliban's greatest sin was sidelining the traditional tribal power structures, such as this shura. And they took away the one thing that guaranteed a tribe's place in Afghan society: guns.

Maulvi Ghulem Muhammad Barakzai, a Soviet-war veteran and prominent Islamic cleric in Kandahar province, says that all the bloodshed between warring Afghan militias, or mujahideen, could have been avoided.

"If America and Britain and all the Islamic countries had supported the mujahideen government in the 1990s, you wouldn't have these difficulties with the Taliban," says Maulvi Barakzai, who is attending the Alizai shura. "America and the other countries could have compelled all the mujahideen groups to cooperate and make a successful government."

"Look at Kabul today," he adds. "There is no fighting among the groups. Why? It's not that these groups have become friends. It's through Western pressure and UN pressure that they become friends."

Among the young men guarding the shura are a handful of men who still wear the black turban of the Taliban - a sign that they have attended religious seminaries and have achieved a certain level of understanding of the Arabic language and of the Islamic holy book, the Koran. All of them have fought continuously for five years, some of them in faraway northern districts against the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek militias of the Northern Alliance.

Abdul Rahim says he joined the Taliban because he liked the idea of student-soldiers who could purify an Afghanistan that had descended into corruption and violence. "Taliban and mullah, these were good names for the people of Afghanistan," he says. "Before the Taliban, people were so afraid for their security because the mujahideen were cruel. When we heard that mullahs were going to reform Afghanistan, we were very happy."

But soon Afghanistan's new reform movement, the Taliban (or truth-seekers) themselves became corrupt and cruel, he says. "We hoped the Taliban would bring security, but they failed us. It took me three years to realize this, but still I could not bring myself to quit. It was difficult to watch the Taliban oppress the people and destroy our cities by fighting, fighting among ourselves."