Shifting sands at Afghanistan's grass roots

After a visit to a tribal council meeting, a journey dead-ends amid warnings of Taliban and Arab fighters nearby

It's 8 a.m., and we three infidels - an Australian and two Americans - are munching a breakfast of almonds and green raisins, and sipping cups of sweet green tea. Our hosts can't join us, because as good Muslims during Ramadan, they must fast from sunup to sundown.

Today we will witness a tribal shura, or council, which will decide whether the Alizai tribe will support the new post-Taliban government in Kandahar and Kabul. Then, inshallah, or God willing, we will hike into the mountains to see the inside of a cave complex that once housed Osama Bin Laden.

We have no inkling that our trip will soon be cut short.

When we reach the central tribal compound, the shura is already under way. Two dozen men, some middle-aged, others quite elderly, sit cross-legged on a neatly laid out series of prayer mats, their shoes tucked behind them on the gravel. The men are discussing their tribe's future, and whether it is in their tribe's interest to support the new Afghan government that replaced the Taliban.

A double-edged sword

The Taliban had their strong points, the men agree. They brought some peace to Kandahar province, which includes their villages. And they imposed a conservative Islamic government that many Pushtun tribes like the Alizais felt most comfortable with.

But the Taliban's greatest sin was sidelining the traditional tribal power structures, such as this shura. And they took away the one thing that guaranteed a tribe's place in Afghan society: guns.

Maulvi Ghulem Muhammad Barakzai, a Soviet-war veteran and prominent Islamic cleric in Kandahar province, says that all the bloodshed between warring Afghan militias, or mujahideen, could have been avoided.

"If America and Britain and all the Islamic countries had supported the mujahideen government in the 1990s, you wouldn't have these difficulties with the Taliban," says Maulvi Barakzai, who is attending the Alizai shura. "America and the other countries could have compelled all the mujahideen groups to cooperate and make a successful government."

"Look at Kabul today," he adds. "There is no fighting among the groups. Why? It's not that these groups have become friends. It's through Western pressure and UN pressure that they become friends."

Among the young men guarding the shura are a handful of men who still wear the black turban of the Taliban - a sign that they have attended religious seminaries and have achieved a certain level of understanding of the Arabic language and of the Islamic holy book, the Koran. All of them have fought continuously for five years, some of them in faraway northern districts against the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek militias of the Northern Alliance.

Abdul Rahim says he joined the Taliban because he liked the idea of student-soldiers who could purify an Afghanistan that had descended into corruption and violence. "Taliban and mullah, these were good names for the people of Afghanistan," he says. "Before the Taliban, people were so afraid for their security because the mujahideen were cruel. When we heard that mullahs were going to reform Afghanistan, we were very happy."

But soon Afghanistan's new reform movement, the Taliban (or truth-seekers) themselves became corrupt and cruel, he says. "We hoped the Taliban would bring security, but they failed us. It took me three years to realize this, but still I could not bring myself to quit. It was difficult to watch the Taliban oppress the people and destroy our cities by fighting, fighting among ourselves."

"We became bored of fighting," says Abdul Manan, another former Taliban fighter, clutching his Kalashnikov. "I thought about quitting the Taliban and joining the Northern Alliance. We all became so afraid to fight against the Northern Alliance. We said we couldn't fight against them."

But there was one group within the Taliban that forced them all to fight. Afghans called them the "Araban," or Arabs.

Abdul Manan remembers fighting alongside the Arabs north of Kabul on the plains of Shamoli. "They were so strong, such big fighters, much more enthusiastic than us Afghans," he says. "We were fighting for our country, but the Al Qaeda fighters, they said they fight for power and killing and martyrdom."

Mr. Manan says that as soon as the World Trade Center attack occurred, he and other Taliban fighters instantly knew it was Al Qaeda's work. "We opposed the Al Qaeda terrorism against the Americans ... because they were killing civilians. It is un-Islamic."

After a short meeting, the Alizai's shura had reached a consensus. They would drive off to Kandahar and support the new central government of interim leader Hamid Karzai and provincial governor Gul Agha. And to protect them for the trip, they would take 40 armed men. This left just a dozen armed men to protect the village, and the foreign journalists.

As the Alizai caravan of pickup trucks roared off in a cloud of white dust, with elderly men clinging to roll-bars in the pickup beds, the mood in the compound changed. The big khans, or leaders, of the Alizais had left.

A barb that wasn't funny

One guard joked to another in Pushtu that they should take the foreigners into the hills and hold us for ransom. The Pakistani journalist, Muhammad Sohail overheard them and said, "You idiots, you think I don't understand Pushtu."

"It was just a joke," the guard replied.

In Afghanistan, it takes just five seconds for a joke to turn into a business proposition, Sohail later said.

Blissfully unaware of what was going on, we two Americans and one Australian continued our work, talking with ex-Taliban soldiers and mixing with the local armed men. That's when Sohail and the sole Alizai elder left behind in Maruf pulled us aside.

"We are prepared to protect you and do whatever you ask, but you should know that there are risks being here," our host, Salim Alizai said solemnly. "Many of these people are Taliban. Not former Taliban, but real ones. And there are Arab fighters up in the mountains near the cave complex. I cannot advise you to go there anymore, and I think it is wise if you leave. But we will do whatever you wish."

We left, traveling over little more than donkey paths through rocky mountain passes in the rain. As night fell and temperatures dipped to freezing, the new truck carrying our guards suddenly stopped, its rear axle knocked back about four inches from the impact of so many rocks.

After more arduous hours - punctuated with more breakdowns and a driver who got lost - at 3:30 a.m. we finally reached the Pakistani village of Pishin, where we had started our journey two days before.

Last of a three-part series.

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