Struggle to unite Afghan tribes, one by one
On a recent day, a US Army officer offered to build a school if two embattled tribes would make peace.
Shabak Valley, Afghanistan
The land dispute had plagued two rival Afghan tribes for 70 years. Afghan military officers were to begin mediation efforts on a recent afternoon, to prevent further bloodshed.Skip to next paragraph
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But a US Army officer, intent on making a positive impact – and with $100,000 to spend on solving local problems as part of a broader US counterinsurgency effort – made an initial peacemaking bid that morning.
"Will it make a difference if I make a school on it?" asked the officer, hoping the project might provide extra glue for unity and in turn weaken the pull of the Taliban and other militants in this mountainous patch of southeast Afghanistan.
"They don't have to agree on whose land it is, just agree that we build a school there," the officer said. Otherwise, he added, "All that's going to happen is they will argue about the land until they are dead, then their kids will argue."
The peacemaking effort was an American input into an Afghan problem, on the sidelines of a recent US and Afghan military medical and veterinary clinic.
In the end, it wasn't clear to what degree the US offer had influenced the feuding elders. But the narrative of the day shows the difficulty of implementing a joint US-Afghan counterinsurgency effort amid tribal disputes.
'Brilliant futures' for your kids
On hillsides of this disputed area, a 16-square-mile parcel adjacent to the medical clinic – the Sultan Khel families have taken up residence and are cutting the trees. But, another tribe, the Piraangei, say decades-old official documents show the land is theirs.
In the first of two meetings that day, elders from the two tribes sat in a semi-circle beside stacks of thick, rough-hewn logs – a reminder of the raw material at stake.
An Afghan officer buttered up the elders. "Does everyone want their kids' future to be brilliant?"
"Yes," the elders replied in unison, as if in a classroom themselves.
"You see that school? It's like a horse stable," says the Afghan, waving toward a distant, old structure. "Do you agree, if well educated [your children] can be doctors and engineers?"
"Yes" the elders said. They also agreed that a new American-funded school was a great idea, though its location – and the US military requirement that its door be open to pupils of all four sub-tribes – was a problem.
"I am very grateful," the lead Piraangei elder, called Maligul, told the US officer. "But location matters. If it is by that hill," he said, pointing his arm behind him, "the answer is 'No.'"
Elders of each tribe set off on foot in turn, with a handful of US soldiers, to show their preferred spot for the American gift.
"The Piraangei want to build the school on their own land; it's not good," complains Sultan Khel chairman Miakee Khan, during the walk. Wearing a long black beard and black turban with grey stripes, he professes allegiance to the American plan.
Rivals accuse the Sultan Khel of siding with the Taliban in the 1990s and even today. Not true, protests Mr. Khan, who claims to have received a threatening "night letter" from the Taliban, and has a personal guard. When an US officer walking beside him asks if Khan can ensure the safety of the students, he says he can't speak for the other three subtribes.