Sunday, May 4, 2008

Talking to the Taliban (Part 4)

Via The Globe & Mail:

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....