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The Tribal Strategy

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So the U.S. has finally realized that Afghanistan has tribes!

Calling the tribes "America's New Hope," the New York Times reports on the Shinwari tribe's decision to oppose the Taliban in the tribe's eastern Afghanistan domain. The U.S. is supporting the Shinwari with a million-dollar grant that goes directly to the tribal leaders, bypassing the Karzai government in Kabul, where corrupt officials would have reduced such a grant to a pittance by the time it reached the tribe.

Good plan - but it comes around thirty years late. Whether it will still work remains to be seen. The Afghan tribal leaders have been hamstrung since 1980, first by the Soviets, who after invading Afghanistan tried to establish a Communist system with a strong central government, but also by the misguided "clandestine" intervention of the U.S. on the Pakistani side of the border. Historically - and we're talking centuries of history here - the tribes pretty much ruled Afghanistan, with minimal interference from the government in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai understands this very well. His father and his father's father were tribal leaders, chiefs of the Popolzai tribe, a mantle Karzai inherited on the death of his father in 1999. As a boy Karzai saw his father settle disputes with a word and a wave of his hand. Nor were the tribal leaders illiterate strongmen who ruled by the gun. Afghanistan had a functioning school system, and universities, and tribal leaders like the Karzais were educated and urbane, and much of their strength lay in intelligence and sagacity.

Then came the 1980s. While the Soviets were trying to remake Afghanistan in their own image, the U.S. was bankrolling the jihad, whose fundamentalist combatants were trained and armed on Pakistan's friendly soil. Does this sound at all familiar? Does anyone have a mirror?

The Reagan Administration's Cold War zeal endowed its policymakers with tunnel vision. For them, the light at the end of that tunnel was an embarrassing defeat for the Soviets, in part, I suppose, to redeem the embarrassing defeat suffered by the U.S. in Vietnam. Since the U.S. could not itself engage in a mano a mano shooting war with the U.S.S.R., the U.S. found a proxy, the lightly armed resistance groups of mujaheddin based in Pakistan and led by rabid Islamists such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Yunis Khalis. The foot soldiers of these ragtag armies were uneducated farm boys susceptible to the charisma of a Hekmatyar, who earned his extremist stripes throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women at Kabul University in the 1970s. These boys had been uprooted from their villages, torn out of their traditional tribal lives. They wanted guidance and leadership, and they got it from precisely the wrong people. And those wrong people got their financial and military support from two principal sources, the Saudis and the Reaganauts. From the Wahabist Saudis came a flood of cash that built hundreds of madrassas and mosques, wherein was taught and preached a violent and virulently anti-West interpretation of Islam. They provided the perfect Petri dish in which to grow the culture of al Qaeda. From the U.S. came a flood of cash and weapons, plus trainers and advisers who ignored the anti-American rhetoric of the Hekmatyars and Sayyafs and operated on the quaint notion that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Never has that old saw been less true than in the Afghanistan of the 1980s, 1990s, and now. From the madrassas came the Taliban, schooled in hatred, steeped in martyrdom. Way too late we began to see them as our own monster, a Mr. Hyde of our creation.

Now we want to empower the tribes?

Some tribes, such as the Shinwari, had already begun to push back, against both the Taliban and the Kabul government. In Nangarhar Province, east of Kabul, where the Shinwari are strong, the schools are functioning, the roads are relatively secure. But my Shinwari friend Ekram cautions against believing the tribe is unanimous it its anti-Taliban decree. "It is hard to say all Shinwaris decided to go against the Taliban," he writes, "because still a big number of this tribe are living in Pakistan...due to migrations and divisions among the tribe, which has several sub-tribes, any claim to [unanimously] fight against the Taliban would be difficult to believe."

Still, the tribal strategy - dare we call it the Pashtun Awakening? - is a step in the right direction. Let's hope it's not too little, too late.