Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Afghanistan's complex tribal structure

Attacks continue against ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan, days after the London Conference, where western countries proposed to transfer responsibilities to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and increase its size. They also proposed to set up a 'trust fund' to integrate the so-called 'good Taliban'. Such a desire to engage with the Taliban is due to rising casualties, and little public support for the nation-building in Afghanistan, among western countries. India though has consistently been opposed to the idea of bribing the Taliban, and of the distinction being sought to be made between good and bad Taliban. This distinction is too simplistic taking into account Afghanistan's complex tribal structure.

Take for example the Helmand Province, located in southern Afghanistan, and bordering Baluchistan. The following map (from NPS) depicts the distribution of tribes, including Tajik, Hazaras, Baluch, and Pashtuns:

Areas under individual Pashtun tribes are depicted, except the largest tribe in Helmand, the Alakozai who I assume are clubbed generically under the green swathe of "Durrani Pashtuns". The Alakozai are a pro-government tribe and three of their leaders have been assassinated by the Taliban in the past decade. They dominate the Arghandab District; this was the scene of a major battle in 2008 after the Taliban blew up the main gate of Sarposa jail, from which several hundred fighters escaped. The Taliban were eventually defeated by the ANA and ISAF.

The Pashtun tribes in Helmand can be further grouped under the two grand historical confederacies, the Durranis (Alokazai, Alizai, Barakzai, Barech, Eshaqzai, Noorzai) and the Ghilzais (Suleimankhel, Kharoti, Alizai, Sulemanzai, Jalalzai, Alikhel, Nizamkhel, Shakhel). All tribes without distinction are involved in poppy-growing, refinement, and trading. A Daily Star article recounts what happened when the British tried to curb this trade:

In one corner is the Alizai tribe of controversial ex-Helmand governor Sher Mohammad Akunzada. He was forced out by the British after drugs were found in his basement.

But that meant locals thought UK soldiers were siding with the Alizai’s deadly enemies, the Alakozai tribe led by Dan Mohammad Khan.

India's greatest military historian Jadunath Sarkar had written long ago that "The family and not the tribe is the true unit of Afghan society....the nominal chieftain merely governs on the sufferance of his followers." This is why in Helmand, while the Kharoti Ghilzai are considered pro-Afghan government, one of their prominent members Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has always been pro-ISI.

Another major grouping in Helmand is the Kuchi, which includes members from both the Ghilzai and Durrani, who follow the nomadic profession. It won't be unusual to find a Kuchi bearing the surname Alakozai for instance, but the largest tribe within this group are the Ahmadzai. The Kuchis practice transhumance across the Afghan-Pak border and some of their members supported the Taliban, because those religious fanatics targeted the Shia Hazaras, whose lands the Kuchi coveted. But here again a prominent leader, Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, has always been pro-Afghan government.

How much foreign journalists are aware of these complex tribal/family equations is not clear. But an interesting article by embedded journalists of the Star Tribune shows the complexities of even simple military operations in Helmand:

"Capt. Jeffrey Nilsen, commander of the Minnesota Guard unit, sums up its 12-month mission simply: "Moving things from point A to point B." But in Afghanistan, which seems made for chewing up men and machines, that can be a daunting task. Whether they need fuel or shower heads, the U.S. and coalition bases rising in the desert depend on the 114th to get the goods to them. The British half of the convoy was crewed partly by Gurkhas -- Nepalese soldiers with a storied reputation for fearsomeness. Getting fresh supplies to the British soldiers in the area would allow them to get out of their operating bases and better push out the nests of insurgents. The Taliban know that, too. Which makes the 114th a big target.

The terrain put the convoy at new risk. Trucks began getting stuck in deep sand. An alternate route promised to get everyone moving again, but would force the trucks through a cemetery, a violation in any culture. Self-preservation trumped respect for the dead. Drivers did their best to take care, but one feared he knocked over a grave marker.

The most feared Taliban weapon in the desert chess game is the IED, or improvised explosive device -- the insurgents' weapon of choice, far more than in Iraq. Some come with levels of sophistication that suggest professional manufacture, most likely in Iran or Pakistan. But a majority are surprisingly simple, little more than wood, fertilizer and a pressure plate to trigger the explosion.

The trucks were drawing closer to Sangin, a town of about 14,000, notorious for being a regional center for the opium trade, and the Taliban. Sangin was the site of bitter fighting between the Taliban and British troops in 2006 that left much of the town destroyed. Half of its inhabitants had fled. Those who remained were presumed to be on the Taliban's side.

Half an hour later, the bomb-detonation crew at the front found an IED in its path. From a distance, the detonation was like the thud of a giant car door slamming shut. Rix spotted movement on the crest of a hill several hundred meters to his right. He quickly swung the .50-caliber machine gun in that direction. Mindful of the danger of civilian casualties from the big .50-caliber, Sabyan, in the passenger seat, told Rix to draw his rifle instead. Figures were moving around a truck a couple hundred meters away.


Three rocket-propelled grenades screamed past Rix from behind him on the right. Small arms fire came from in front, on his left. British guns opened return fire. Rix swung the .50 back around, trying to find where the RPGs were coming from. Five more rockets flew over his head. The .50 jammed as he pulled back the charging handle. By then, the shooting had died down to his right. He picked up his personal rifle, an M4 carbine, and scanned for targets. One of the tanker trucks had been hit and one of the British security vehicles had minor shrapnel damage from an exploding RPG. One of the drivers looked at his dashboard: 146 miles in 52 hours of actual running time. An average of 3 mph."