Feudal lords key to Afghan peace

A new interim government takes power tomorrow. Its success may depend on the goodwill of tribal leaders.

Ahmedullah Alizai and members of his tribe have had a good day, disarming the Taliban. With 30 trucks full of confiscated rifles, rocket-launchers, and ammunition, the Alizai have reasserted control over a district of Kandahar Province that had been ruled by the strict Islamist militia for nearly seven years.

"During the Taliban era, it was like a prison, no one had a right to express himself," says Mr. Alizai, propping himself against a cushion on the floor of a village guesthouse lit by kerosene lamps. "The general public was powerless. They didn't have a voice, and they didn't have guns. Because of that, the Taliban could impose their will."

Alizai is a one-man metaphor for the contradictions of Afghanistan. Like his father and grandfather before him, he is a tribal elder - though only in his late 20s - a 21st century feudal lord, the king of this district. Yet he wears a democratic hat as well, as one of a few dozen ministers in the interim government that will take power in Kabul tomorrow.

British marines, who will form the backbone of an international security force in the capital, began arriving early this morning. Meanwhile, the US - with help from Afghan forces - is continuing its operations. Special forces teams are searching the mountainous terrain for both Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's top leadership, including supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Pakistani intelligence agents reportedly detained a senior Taliban security official, Aminullah Amin, yesterday, as Pakistani forces fought to recapture dozens of escaped Al Qaeda prisoners near the border.

Here in Maruf, and in many other rural villages where nearly 80 percent of the 26 million Afghans live, tribal government is reasserting itself. Men are digging up the guns they buried to avoid Taliban disarmament. Big decisions, such as the selection of a government, are made once again through gatherings of village elders, or shura, and not by Taliban-appointed mullahs or for that matter, via the democratic concept of one person, one vote.

Some experts say this return to feudalism, where warlords gain power by exercising power - relying on weapons and pragmatism rather than ideologies or written laws - could endanger the fledgling government. But others argue that, at least at first, Afghanistan's best opportunity for peace is to tap into a traditional infrastructure that may be unstable - even brutal - but works.

During two decades of war, in the absence of a functioning central government, its duties fell to ethnic or tribal leaders. Rural Afghans have long looked to such leaders to settle land disputes, punish crimes, and get their voices heard.

"Under the [former] king, the power of the central government was only based on distributing money to the tribal elders," says Frederic Grare, an expert on Afghanistan at the Center for Human Sciences in New Delhi. "The tribes could do what they wanted in their villages, as long as they supported the central government. I think we are moving in that direction right now."

On a recent weekend, some three-dozen male elders were selected to go to Kandahar to show their support for the fractious post-Taliban government there of warlord Gul Agha. To protect them on the five-hour journey, the elders brought along dozens of men armed with RPGs and Kalashnikov rifles.

Most are former mujahideen "holy warriors," veterans of the 10-year fight against the Soviet invasion of 1979-89. Some participated in the mujahideen government of the early 1990s, under which Afghanistan plunged into chaos and civil war until the authoritarian Taliban took power in 1996.

"The difference between the mujahideen government and the Taliban was that at that time the people were beaten by the Taliban," says Maulvi Ghulem Muhammad Barakzai, a prominent mujahideen leader during the Soviet war. "In the Soviet war, we were all Muslims united against the foreign infidels. But under the Taliban, there was fighting among ourselves, Muslim against Muslim, Afghan against Afghan. There was no peace."

The mujahideen themselves were far from peaceful. Their four-year rule saw the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, as each group fended for its own interests - Tajiks against Pashtuns; Shiite Muslims versus Sunni Muslims; and tribe versus tribe.

Even so, many Afghans say they believe today's rulers have learned lessons and will not repeat the mistakes of the past. The key to peace, they say, is that America must not repeat its mistake of 1989, and depart Afghanistan in its present state.

"America should take part in the reconstruction of Afghanistan," says Alizai, a US ally in this region as well as newly elected head of his tribe. "But if they do leave Afghanistan in this condition, then it will be the end of America."

Around him, the mood is somber. Tribe members mutter that there are still heavily armed Taliban units in the hills around Maruf, along with a few Al Qaeda militants, mainly Arabs, who left behind training camps and cave complexes where Mr. bin Laden once took refuge in the early part of the war.

Even in their own ranks, there are former Taliban members, some of whom could be spies, they say, just waiting for a moment of weakness.

Out on the road, a driver, Tariq, is glum about his country's future. "There will never be peace in Afghanistan," says the former mujahideen, as he maneuvers his pickup truck over the rough, dusty landscape around Maruf. "I am just a driver, but even I can pull together 25 armed men to cause trouble. Imagine what these warlords can do, with all their money."

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