Key to governing Afghans: the clans
A little over a year ago, this town was a veritable bee's nest of renovation. Turkish engineers were building a major highway to link Kabul and Kandahar. Afghan demining agencies were probing the earth for land mines lurking on footpaths and in wheat fields.Skip to next paragraph
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And then, in August, the attacks started. Just down the road in Ghazni, a Turkish engineer was kidnapped by Taliban fighters and held for ransom. Here in Salar, hoodlums fired rockets on a demining vehicle and stole another. In a matter of weeks, a handful of troublemakers had turned one of Afghanistan's few success stories into a scene of lawlessness.
And it never would have happened that way, says Malik Abdul Khaliq, the local tribal leader here, if the Afghan government had only asked for his help and for the tribe's protection.
"The road-project people didn't talk with us at all. They only talked with people who had money or power or guns," says Mr. Khaliq, the top elder of the Mirkhel tribe, which dominates this town. "If they had listened to tribal leaders, and asked for our assistance, this violence would never have happened. The US and [President Hamid] Karzai now realize that without the support of the tribes, they can't do any development in this country."
Two and a half years after the fall of the Taliban, the fight for control of Afghanistan continues tribe by tribe and village by village. It's a battle of hearts and minds, where the enemy - Taliban and Al Qaeda - know the rules and nuances of tribal society better than the Americans, and perhaps better than some of the urbanized Afghan officials who now rule the country.
It's a battle where alliances are made and broken over blood relationships and tribal feuds, rather than adherence to an extremist form of Islam preached by Osama bin Laden. The fluid power struggles present an opportunity for the US to cast its lot with tribal leaders to get intelligence and secure local protection for reconstruction projects. However, engaging in tribal politics also risks deepening feuds and undermining the country's transition to a more modern, democratic system based on merit rather than blood.
"Tribes are arguably more important than ever," says David Edwards, an anthropologist with extensive experience in Afghanistan based at Williams College in Massachusetts. "Given the fact that the present administration neither is very strong nor has a great deal of legitimacy, tribal structures have rebounded."
For centuries, it was tribal leaders rather than kings who truly ruled Afghanistan. The Emir of Kabul could pass edicts and demand taxes, but outside Kabul, his power was largely ceremonial. Out in the remoter desert oases, tribes ruled themselves.
Given this tradition of rugged individualism, Afghan intelligence sources and government officials say it is no accident that the bulk of attacks against US and Afghan forces, and against Afghan and international aid workers, is occurring in the southern parts of Afghanistan. It is here that the Afghan tribes - especially those of Afghanistan's largest ethno- linguistic group, the Pashtuns - remain strongest.
Indeed, a look at the top Taliban leadership along the Afghan-Pakistani border shows that their power is based at least as much on their tribal relationships as on their religious credentials (see map).
One former CIA case officer, who worked with Afghan fighters during the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, says the Taliban have degenerated from a religious movement into a tribal cabal.
"They are tribal chiefs, who give themselves Islamist credentials for foreign consumption, but the real source of their power is their tribe," says the CIA officer. "Their power does not extend beyond the influence of their tribe."
Most Pashtuns are divided into two major tribes, the Ghalji and the Durrani. The Ghalji are larger in number, but the Durrani have long been dominant. Mr. Karzai is a Durrani.
In parts outside Afghanistan's Pashtun-dominated south, tribal identity takes a backseat to broader ethnic, sectarian, and regional affiliations which form the backbone of support for many of the country's powerful warlords.
But in southern Afghanistan, where the tribal system has primacy, power is much less concentrated. Within the two larger tribes there are numerous sub-tribes, conflicting claims to leadership, and small-scale militias. Each village has a tribal chief, and these chiefs choose from among their own ranks leaders who will represent the tribe in Kabul. Most tribes, however, have a number of factions claiming to represent the whole tribe, leading to rivalries and chaos. While the multilayered and fractious nature of tribal authority can be exploited by outsiders, those same traits make it a perilously complex game.