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To fight Taliban, US eyes Afghan tribes

Some tribes have forced insurgents from their area, but many risks remain.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 2008

Tribal leader: Hajji Malik Zahir opposed the Taliban.

Mark Sappenfield/The Christian Science Monitor

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With sticks, knives, and 600 men drawn from his own tribe, Hajji Malik Zahir did what the armies of Afghanistan and America could not: He drove the Taliban from his district.

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Now, the United States increasingly wants to encourage other tribal elders in Afghanistan to do the same. In what is taking shape as a substantial policy shift, it wants to use tribes to bring law and order to the vast areas of the country beyond the government's authority.

The successful uprising of tribal chiefs in Iraq against Al Qaeda – the "Anbar Awakening" – has created momentum, as has endemic corruption in President Hamid Karzai's government.

The government is not competent enough to deal with the dire threats now facing Afghanistan, says Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corp., a security consultancy in Arlington, Va., that works with the Pentagon. "This means working with the tribal leaders," he says.

Such a policy promises great risk and reward. Done carelessly, it could unleash the tribal and ethnic forces that led to civil war in the early 1990s, warns tribal leader Mr. Zahir, as well as analysts. Yet his experience – and that of aid agencies and local law-enforcement officials – suggests that tribal elders can often deliver results that the government alone cannot.

In a Pentagon briefing last week the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, said: "It seems to me that, with the lead of the government of Afghanistan, engaging those tribes and connecting them to governance – whether it's at the provincial level or the district level – seems to be a smart thing to do to assist with the security of a huge country."

US fears reviving civil war

It has taken Washington seven years to get to this point, largely because of the tremendous dangers and complications inherent in such a policy.

As recently as the 1980s, America was arming and training local fighters in Afghanistan to drive out the Soviet Army. The result was four years of civil war after the Soviets withdrew, as the new warlords fought each other, killing thousands. The chaos led to the rise of the Taliban.

Moreover, Afghanistan is an enormously complex web of intersecting tribal and ethnic allegiances that must be negotiated with great delicacy. Bolstering one Pashtun tribe in eastern Afghanistan, for example, could upset Tajiks and Hazaras in the north – who feel that their old foes are being strengthened – as well as rival Pashtun clans in the south.

For this reason, a consensus is emerging here and in Washington that whatever program emerges must be run by the Afghan government itself – perhaps by the police or Army.

"I would not want [NATO] military commanders to be trying to decide which tribe should they support without letting the Afghan government do that," said General McKiernan.