AN INTERVIEW WITH AN AFGHAN TRIBAL CHIEF

Interview with An Afghan Tribal Chief

Part #1

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 25, 2009

Chief Zazai, right, with his father, Chief Raiss Afzal Khan Zazi and his bodyguard, both murdered in 2000

Chief Zazai, right, with his father, Chief Raiss Afzal Khan Zazi and his bodyguard, both murdered in 2000

[The blog is out of town this week.  Here is a re-boot of our first post in this ongoing series. See you Monday!]

This will be the first of a multi-part conversation with Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai of Paktia province, Afghanistan. Let’s plunge right in.

SP: Chief Zazai, this summer you were elected to the paramountcy of eleven tribes in your home region in Paktia province along the border with Pakistan. Why did the tribes meet at this time? What was their agenda?

Chief Zazai: On July 17th, 2009, my 11 tribes, their Chiefs and Tribal elders gathered in the Zazi valley, where the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division is also based. The event was broadcast for three days by the TV channel “Shamasad” and was seen throughout Afghanistan. The tribes met to address the problems created by the escalation of the insurgency and of course the failure of the Karzai administration to bring a stable, uncorrupt and people-representing government to Afghanistan.

SP: Prior to this meeting, you had established a tribal police force. Can you tell us why you did this and what has happened since?

Chief Zazai: At the end of May 2009, the tribal council, after many meetings, created this force to protect the people of the valley and to provide security for the council members. Our Zazi force is constituted of 80 men, who are governed by the tribal council. They serve full-time; they are armed with their own weapons and commanded by my friend Amir Mohammed. Commander Amir fought against the Soviets in the 80s and has been the commander of the border police appointed by the interior minister. He is a brave commander and a man of his word.

On September 13, just a few days ago, I was having a dinner with my family when I received a phone call from Commander Amir, who informed me of an IED placed in the mosque where he and the Tribal Police were having a dinner. It was Ramadan and they had been fasting all day so they came together to break their fast. An explosive device went off, blowing up part of the mosque and injuring a few tribal police. Thank God somehow the main bomb did not go off. If it had, it could have killed 30 to 40 people easily. Just imagine if this bomb had gone off and killed this many people! Could I have been in the position to form another such group? No, never.

Site of the 11 Tribes' Meeting, Paktia province

Site of the 11 Tribes' Meeting, Paktia province

SP: Who planted the bomb and why?

Chief Zazai: The reason the insurgents planted this bomb is that they are aware we are siding with the US.

SP: Your own father was assassinated, I understand, under orders from Mullah Omar. You yourself have survived two attempts on your life. Can you tell us about your father and what you and he are fighting for?

Chief Zazai: My father was Chief Raiss Afzal Khan Zazai; he was murdered in 2000. My father led our Zazi tribes in the fight against the Soviets and later he organized the Tribal Chiefs from three provinces (Paktia, Paktika & Khost) in order to upraise against the Taliban. Some ex-commanders were visiting him at our family home and there they carried out this heinous crime. I have not found who gave the orders yet but the motive behind this was to bring a full stop to this movement and also to frighten the rest.

My father was one of our country’s first industrialists. He and my uncle founded the first Afghan transport company, Mrastay Transport, using old British Bedford trucks. His company, Wazir Ltd, exported raisins, dried fruits and Afghan carpets to Russia, Germany and Britain, while importing vehicles, appliances and medicines.

My father believed that the tribes were the past and future of Afghanistan. Let me show you a letter he wrote before he was killed (and several years before 9/11) to our dear friend David Simpson in England, who had fought alongside my father against the Soviets and is writing a book about this and much more. I thank David for his kind permission to excerpt this.

Besides the full support of Pushtoon tribes, I’ve the full support of Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen Tribes. I successfully expanded the “Zazi Tribes Union” to national tribal union where all the major tribes in Afghanistan are included. The present situation in my country is very bad.  People are suffering terribly under the unlawful regime of the Taliban … In 1995 I warned you of Taliban’s agenda towards extremism and [predicted] the present situation. I hate to say this but “I told you so.” Dear Dave, I need [the outside world’s] support. My tribesmen are ready. Our Tribal main issue is to completely finish drugs and end the deep roots of terrorism.

SP: Is this your cause too, Chief Zazai?

Chief Zazai: Yes! The difficulty is in making people understand, people of America and the West. Afghanistan seems so complicated and confusing. It is complicated even to us! But, Steve, I tell you it is possible to bring together the tribes, which are the true power on the ground in Afghanistan and from there build a stable structure of governance. I said before that the gathering of the eleven Zazi tribes was broadcast for three days. A momentum is now circulating around Afghanistan for a tribal united front which could find a way forward. My team in Kabul and Zazi have been contacted by many Tribal chiefs who wish to join our efforts in uniting all the Afghan tribes.

Inside the tent: elders from the 11 tribes

Inside the tent: elders from the 11 tribes

SP: I want to talk more about issues that (you’re right) are confusing to non-Afghans: who’s who … the Taliban, the warlords, al-Qaeda, the insurgency. And about how your tribal union might work with the US military, what you’re doing, what the American responses have been, what’s possible. Are you game to keep going?

Chief Zazi: I will talk as long as you want, if we can get even a few people to listen.

[To be continued next Friday.  Monday, we’ll start serializing Special Forces Major Jim Gant’s white paper, “One Tribe At A Time.”]

Posted in Afghanistan, Agora, An Interview with an Afghan Tribal Chief, Editorial

6 Responses to “Part #1”

  1. Karl
    September 27, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Steve,

    This is important work. Hats off to Chief Zazai. It seems to me that we won the war in 01 with the overthrow of the Taliban as a force in Afghanistan. We should have read the history of the “Pashtuns” prior to committing to any long-term plan. However, with that being said, what Chief Zazai is trying to do here is the only way things will eventually work themselves out in Afghanistan. The answer must be an Afghan one. The tribal social structure is not only the oldest and trusted aspect of the Afghan society, but at the current time, seems to be the most stable and dependable. It is of great importance that Chief Zazai has the support of eleven tribes, which inludes the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen tribes.

    Are the Coalition Forces in the area supporting this movement? If so, with what? How could it be supported better?

    How can we (both US and Afghan) forces support the overall spread of movements like this, and is that possible?

    Please keep up the work on this. Both American and Afghan lives hang in the balance.

    Karl

  2. AJ
    October 1, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Any more info/ links about David Simpson and his book, other writings or biog?

    • Steven Pressfield
      October 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm

      AJ, David’s e-mail address is davidssims [at] gmail [dot] com. (Don’t forget the extra “s” in the middle.) He’ll be glad to correspond with you.

      SP

  3. Ghafar Lodeen
    October 4, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    hi, I have been working in Afghanistan/Pakistan for a long time for NGOs, I have never heard about this chief.Can you tell us about your education?Background?your polictical motivations and where do you get the money from?

  4. FeFe
    November 1, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    The tales of corruption remind me of Mexico. On the road in town you pay a policeman. Then the children stopping traffic for “tolls” in villages were replaced by the army, and then you paid the policeman in town to get out of jail but he kept your shiny new truck. Now, relatives must wire money as you don’t have enough on hand to pay the “fines.” You dare not visit anymore. Corruption is so rampant and engrained, the enterprising immigrate. Mexico’s GDP relies on remittances as the nation’s second highest source of revenue behind oil. Drugs and violence are spilling across the US/Mexico border. Af-Pak border too.

    — Tell this mother and widow, Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai, how continuing to help the Afghan people will not perpetuate the children of the world as collateral damage to the drug trade?

    The pronounced uptick in illegal Afghans caught crossing the US/Mexico border and the poppy production in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed. While I don’t see it as the US military’s roll to dictate farm production, and how you govern your nation responsibly is your process to choose or advocate, but poppy is what Afghanistan grows for export. I have no knowledge that you or your tribes are responsible or involved in drug trafficing, and it is not my intention to imply you are involved. However, we mothers hear to eradicate the poppy will destroy your economy. Do you want to be part of a Narco state? How’s that working out for Mexico? Great, if you want to be dependent on the United States of America. Meanwhile, Pakistan is getting the billions of US dollars and resources to fight the Taliban just as Mexico gets the same deal to fight the drug cartels. While Afghanistan gets so much fertilizer from NGOs they have excess for IEDs or bombs, while growers count the money from a 15% increase over last year’s high in opium per hectare production thanks to the fertilizer too. And don’t forget to take your free wheat seed for stopping by because we wouldn’t want the price for that to be economically sustainable.

    Are you looking to drum up support in America? If you’re not speaking to US farmers about grain subsidies, why not speak to the women? There are many American women who believe in our 2nd Amendment that fits into your goal of arming your tribes as for home safety. But please be aware, the mothers of America are weary that not only our husbands but our children too are expendable to Afghan farmers. I wish you luck and success.

    • Ajmal Khan Zazai
      January 2, 2010 at 4:04 am

      Dear FeFe, I am terribly sorry for not being able to read the comments on this page as I was travelling and did not really get the chance to read the comments.

      To answer your questions I will mention the important points here as this delicate & most important issue which not only damaging the name & image of my country but is also a direct threat to the lives of many innocent youths around the globe especially in Western Europe.

      My late father always fought against the drug trade, he did not allowed our tribes to grow poppy, on many occassions he refused the drug barons to use our valley as a processing center for hard drugs.

      In 2003 our tribes started to grow Poppy, this was actually for the first time in many years, I campaigned hard to stop my tribes from cultivating poppy and by the end of 2005 I was able to bring a full stop to the Poppy cultivation in the entire Province, I then visited President Karzai, the UN, UNDP & many other NGOs asking for help for our farmers but unfortuantely no one helped us, but till this date there is no Poppy cultivation in our entire province, this is due to the strong Tribal treaties the Tribes have signed and agreed not to cultivate Poppy. Our farmers now grows Potatos, beans, wheat & vegtibles but not Poppy.

      Poppy cultivation is actually a very tricky business, as deep one go and try to find why this trade continues that much is gets complicated to learn facts and the truth, however, I have campaigned hard against the poppy cultivation and rulled out any excuses such as “If the poppy cultivation stops, many farmers will starve to death” in reply I have given my people as an example and told them “My farmers did not startved to death”, but I have never been given a satisfactory answers by the UN or other NGOs who are working with the Afghan Governmnet on Poppy cultivation and Drug productions.

      At a conference on Poppyin Europe, a UN officer was describing the poppy cultivation & drug production to be a 4 Billion USD industry per year, he also told that $800 million of the $4 Billion goes to the farmers.

      I could not understand when the UN says “If these Afghan farmers do not cultivate Poppy, they & their families will starve to death”. If one takes the $800 million and multiply that by 7 or 8 years then this comes to about $6 Billion USD and if you take this $6 Billion and divide it on lets see 4,000 farmers, I think we have got some millionairs not starving farmers!

      The honest truth about Poppy cultivation& the Drug Trade is that men behind this trade are part of President Karzai’s Cabinet, are his immediate family members, are ministers, Memebers of Parliament, are governors of Provinces and are very large Warlords. The farmers are forced to cultivate Poppy and the land which Poppy is cultivated on belongs mostly to these powerful officials and Mafia kings. The Poppy & Drug revenues are not part of the Afghanistan’s GDP in fact the hard Cash which is earned from Poppy & Drugs by these Powerful men in the Karzai regime are invested abroad.

      I am very sad that the image of my country is destroyed, my people are poor and live a hard & poor life but these evil men gets richer and richer.

      I hope you got a picture of how things are in Afghanistan and could imagine the ground realities.

      Many Thanks

      Ajmal Khan Zazai