Canadian troops and their allies have been drawn into an ancient tribal feud that simmers beneath the conflict in southern Afghanistan.
In a sample of ordinary insurgents, 42 fighters in Kandahar province were asked by The Globe and Mail to identify their own tribe, and the results point to a divide within the Taliban ranks: Only five named themselves as members of the three major tribes most closely associated with the government, suggesting that tribal animosity has become a factor that drives the recruitment of insurgents.
"This government is a family business," said a prominent Afghan aid worker in Kandahar. "The other tribes get angry when a few tribes have all the power."
Afghan tribes often share the same ethnicity, religion, language and culture, but they're divided along ancestral lines that resemble the branches of a huge family tree. Little except bloodlines distinguishes most tribes from each other, but struggles for power among the tribes have been a source of bloodshed for centuries in this harsh land.
The small survey did not include enough interviews to draw firm conclusions about the tribal makeup of the Taliban, and the results may be biased by the tribal identity of the researcher who conducted the interviews since it would have been easier for him to find his fellow tribesmen in Taliban-controlled districts.
But the findings appear to support the impression of many analysts that the Kandahar insurgency draws fighters most heavily from the tribes outside of the Zirak Durrani tribal federation, which dominates the local government.
The Taliban interviewed claimed origins from 19 different tribes, all of them part of the Pashtun ethnic group that occupies most of southern Afghanistan. The largest numbers came from the Noorzai and Eshaqzai tribes, which accounted for 16 of the 42 surveyed. Many members of those two tribes live in the most dangerous parts of the Panjwai valley, where Canadian troops have been fighting for the past two years, and they often complain about being alienated from Kandahar's government, with little representation in the administration.
The Popalzai tribe of President Hamid Karzai, by contrast, had relatively few members in the sample of insurgents. Only two Taliban identified themselves as Popalzai, and they appeared to have personal reasons for participating in the insurgency: One said his family had been bombed by foreign troops and the other said the government repeatedly eradicated his opium fields. There was a similar lack of insurgents from other tribes usually aligned with the government.
"Currently there is war between the tribes," said a former Afghan intelligence officer, whose experience in Kandahar spans three decades.
But another observer said the friction between tribes still hasn't reached that point.
"We don't have a true tribal war here, yet," said Neamat Arghandabi, head of the National Islamic Society of Afghan Youth, who said he remembers such feuding during the period of chaos in the early 1990s that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces. "It's the worst," he said. "It has no borders, everybody fights each other and you have to hide your roots. But for now, it's like competition among political parties."
The fact that certain tribes are more heavily represented than others within the Taliban appears to be a touchy point with the insurgent leadership, which prefers to describe religion as the group's unifying force. The Globe and Mail's researcher was sharply criticized by Taliban when they learned he had been surveying the tribal background of insurgents.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, scoffed at the idea of a tribally motivated insurgency as he watched The Globe's videos at his home in Kabul. "Among the Taliban, there is no difference between the tribes," Mr. Zaeef said. "The tribe issue among Taliban is not important."
But academics who monitor Afghanistan are paying increasing attention to the issue. Thomas Johnson, director of the Culture and Conflict Studies program at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, was among the first academics to describe the tribal underpinnings of the war.
Three tribes that dominated Kandahar in the years after the Soviet withdrawal, the Popalzai, Barakzai and Alokozai, all from the Zirak Durrani group, lost significant power when the Taliban swept the country from 1994 to 1996, Mr. Johnson said. In their place, the tribal groups aligned with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar installed themselves in the seats of government. The Taliban leader's own tribe, the Hotak branch of the Ghilzai federation, occupied seven of the senior positions in Mullah Omar's regime, according to Mr. Johnson's analysis.
The latest government in Kandahar has largely returned the Zirak Durranis to power, Mr. Johnson said, which reflects a tribal struggle that goes back hundreds of years.
Afghan government officials vigorously disagree with emphasizing the tribal element of the conflict, framing the war as a struggle against terrorism, but Mr. Johnson said they are playing down the role of the tribes.
"[They] can't face reality, and it is a recognition that the real conflict runs much deeper and will be much more difficult to resolve," Mr. Johnson said.
But many experts say it's wrong to view the tribal aspect of the war as a reason for despair, because the notion that the tribes always fight each other is false. Afghanistan has enjoyed decades of peace among the tribes, as recently as the 1960s and 1970s.
"Power dynamics have something to do with it; there were relatively more Ghilzai in the Taliban government, and that gave the current Durrani leadership an excuse to under-represent them in government," said Sarah Chayes, an American author who lives in Kandahar. "But I think it is wrong to characterize this conflict as a manifestation of age-old tribal conflicts, or as a kind of fight for the spoils among groups eagerly trying to loot Afghanistan. Treating it that way will be a self-fulfilling prophesy."
The tribes have gained power as an alternative political force only because the central government is weak, Ms. Chayes said, and bringing a clean and responsible government to the province would likely dampen Afghans' enthusiasm for the tribal system.
"Tribes that feel themselves to be mistreated by the government may act in a concerted way, like the Alokozais in Khakrez district deserting en masse to the Taliban, but this has been a reaction to the very tribal dimension of the actions of certain Kandahar leaders," Ms. Chayes said.
But a wealthy member of the Noorzai tribe, a group that often complains of being disenfranchised, said he thinks the cycle of tribes squabbling for power has already gained its own momentum and will be difficult to stop.
"Some warlords were against our tribes, and they wanted revenge against them," said Din Mohammed, a grey-bearded elder who owns a construction company. "They wanted to push these tribes out of the new government, put pressure on them, so these people went to Pakistan. And Pakistan supported them and sent them back to Afghanistan, and now the fighting is more and more."
Tribes of Kandahar
The Kandahar insurgency draws fighters most heavily from the tribes outside the Zirak Durrani tribal federation, which dominates the local government.
An estimated 13 million Pashtuns live in Afghanistan, mostly in the south and east. In Kandahar, they have two main branches: The Durrani and Ghilzai.
ZIRAK DURRANI and PANJPAI DURRANI
Tribal identity often influences a person's politics, and whether he or she supports or opposes the government of President Hamid Karzai. Zirak Durranis tend to favour the government, while Panjpai Durranis and Ghilzais often feel disenfranchised.
President Hamid Karzai rules in the capital, while his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, plays a major role in Kandahar as chairman of the provincial council.
The late Mullah Naqib was the President's biggest ally in the south, and his tribesmen remain an important bulwark around the city.
Former Kandahar governor Gul Aga Shirzai retains influence and business ties to the province through his tribe.
Abdul Razik, a flamboyant young police chief who controls the road crossing to Pakistan, is among this tribe's leading members.
The politician Arif Noorzai may lead this tribe officially, but arguably its most influential member is Hafz Majid, a senior Taliban leader. The Noorzai are heavily represented west of Kandahar city.
A bitter conflict between this tribe's leader in Kandahar, Habibullah Jan, and Ahmed Wali Karzai was a source of instability in the province until the two men reached a negotiated truce.
With many of their home villages in the conflict zones of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, they are reportedly fighting to defend their opium business.
GRAEME SMITH/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
SOURCES: TRIBAL HIERARCHY AND DICTIONARY OF AFGHANISTAN: A REFERENCE AID FOR ANALYSTS (Feb., 2007); COURAGE SERVICES INC., GIUSTOZZI, ANTONIO AND ULLAH, NOOR (2007) THE INVERTED CYCLE: KABUL AND THE STRONGMEN'S COMPETITION FOR CONTROL OVER KANDAHAR, 2001-2006, CENTRAL ASIAN SURVEY, 26:2, 167 - 184, BBC
Running through this week,
we will probe the heart of the
Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan in groundbreaking research by The Globe and Mail. Based on
video-recorded interviews of 42 fighters connected with insurgent groups in Kandahar province,
the research provides us with
a glimpse of who they are,
their motivation and goals.
A GlobeDocs documentary to accompany each of the stories in Graeme Smith's six-part series.
Raw footage of 42 video
recordings of the Taliban fighters.
In The Globe and Mail
TODAY The tribal clash
underlying the conflict
TOMORROW The Taliban
THURSDAY What the Taliban know about the outside world
FRIDAY Why the Taliban are
embracing suicide bombing