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Afghanistan war: US tries to undercut Taliban at tribal level

US and Afghan officials try to persuade some of the 350 tribal leaders in Afghanistan to cooperate against the Taliban. It's not an easy task.

By Thomas L. DayMcClatchy Newspapers / February 4, 2010

US soldiers walk near FOB Shamulzai in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan, Thursday.

Baz Ratner / Reuters

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Paktia Province, Afghanistan

US officials put a lot of hope last year in Haji Rashid, an up-and-coming community leader in the Zormat district of Afghanistan's Paktia province. They considered Rashid a unifying figure who was capable of bringing together about a dozen tribes in the area to work in support of the American-backed Afghan government.

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Their hopes collapsed, however, when Rashid was kidnapped, tortured, mutilated and murdered and his groundwork to broker the support of the tribes in Zormat quickly foundered.

Military officials aren't sure who killed Rashid, but their suspicions point to the Taliban. "It's to their benefit to have instability," said Lt. Col. Matthew Smith, a Georgia Army National Guard officer and the commander of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Paktia province.

Rashid's murder illustrates one of the obstacles that American officials and military commanders face as they try to persuade tribal leaders to cooperate with U.S. troops and with one another against the Taliban. Afghanistan's historically weak central governments have shared power with the country's five so-called "super tribes" and the tribes that compose them, with 350 or so sub-tribes and with local clans, and most of the country's would-be conquerors — including the British and the Soviets — have employed their own tribal strategies.

Now American officials are attending tribal meetings, staying in close touch with tribal leaders and trying to determine which leaders are friendly and which aren't.

In Zormat, U.S. and Afghan officials have turned to tribal leaders as a channel of communication with several small Taliban networks in the region, networks they think could be persuaded to join a peaceful political process. American commanders declined to identify the Taliban commanders with whom they've been communicating.

Navigating tribal rivalries

Those efforts, however, risk feeding traditional tribal rivalries, to the detriment of any plan to undercut the Taliban.

"If you are seen as favoring one tribe over another, you are seen as an enemy to them," said 1st Sgt. Troy Arrowsmith of Odgen, Utah, the top enlisted soldier on the Paktia Provisional Reconstruction Team, a cooperative of about 100 troops and civilians from multiple US agencies.

Unhappy tribes don't have to look far to find outside support.

"In Zormat, the tribes are fractured, and the Taliban are a part of those tribes," Arrowsmith said. "They live with them. They have families there."

American commanders in Paktia keep maps of the province, closely demarcating the tribal areas.

Rivalries among tribes, sub-tribes and families aren't confined to Zormat.

In Paktia's northeast, there's a long-standing animus between the Turi, a Shiite Muslim tribe that extends into Pakistan, and the Bushara, a Sunni Muslim tribe. US officials think the tribes have been at odds over territorial boundaries for about 60 years.

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