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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

"I can guarantee safety from my tribe, but not others," declares Khan. "If the Taliban is going to kill the kids, first they will have to kill me."

The Piraangei lead the Americans to another place, but Maligul insists on a deal-breaker: If the school is built on the disputed turf, there must be an official document saying it is Piraangei land.

"This land is useless!" says an exasperated Afghan US military translator, stepping through dusty knee-high scrub. "Why are they fighting over this useless land?"

That question dominates the second elder pow-wow, convened by Afghan officers in the afternoon. In the shade of the only tree left standing, the Piraangei state that documents in the provincial capital, Gardez, will prove their case. They want all Sultan Khel families moved away until it is settled.

The American offer of the school appears not to be a factor.

"Even if you fight and fight and fight, in the end you must solve this problem by talking," lectures Lt. Col. Fazel Rahman, an Afghan battalion commander who says the government aim is to ensure "no more dead."

With no agreement in sight an hour into the confab, the officers point to another reason for peace. "If you don't come down [from the mountains], fighting will start, and the BBC and Washington Post will not say there were two tribes, but Taliban fighters and the government couldn't stop them," says Colonel Rahman.

Amid threats of firefights and funerals, the Afghan officers draft a written agreement for both parties to sign, pledging not to resume fighting and to cease any harvest of trees from the disputed land.

"This is awesome," says US Army Lt. Col. Dave Woods of Denbo, Pa. The commander of the 4th Squadron 73rd Cavalry, he's sitting a few feet back, up the stony hillside. "Think about it. I ain't down there. And no one is shooting at each other on the mountain." Instead, his Afghan counterparts are mediating, putting Afghanistan one step closer to establishing order and security themselves.

But elders here are reluctant to sign anything, despite the added school inducement. Running out of patience, Rahman makes a dramatic gesture. He literally tears up the agreement, and warns: "All of you go to the mountains, and we'll send artillery strikes onto all of you!"

At last, an agreement

Finally the bickering men reach a verbal agreement. There will be no fire fights. The Sultan Khel families can stay, but there can be no more "taking from the trees." And four representatives from each tribe will journey to Gardez the following Sunday, to get documents and face a judge. If a single representative fails to show up, that side automatically forfeits the dispute.

While the results of the meeting with the judge were unknown at press time, the day's events were a small step towards peace in this corner of Afghanistan. "I call that progress" said Woods diplomatically, giving an assessment of the proceedings.

"Right now they brought us together," acknowledged Maligul, the Piraangei elder. "Otherwise we would be separate."

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