Interview with An Afghan Tribal Chief

Warlords and Taliban

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 23, 2009

[The blog is “on the road” this week.  Here is a re-run of the most clicked interview so far.  See you next week!]

Welcome back, Chief Zazai, after last week’s break in our ongoing, multi-part interview. As you know, we took that space last week to post an open letter to Gens. Jones, Petraeus, McChrystal and Adm. Mullen, alerting them to your formation of a Tribal Police Force in the Zazi Valley and asking for help in aligning that force with the American troops (10th Mountain Division) whose Area of Operations (AO) includes your district. Respect for confidentiality prevents me from publishing particulars, but I’m happy to say that we got an immediate response and that it was just what we hoped for. The top U.S. commanders are listening. More on that as it develops– and as confidentiality permits. Now back to our talk!

Tribal elders gathering this summer in Zazi to organize a Tribal Police Force

Tribal elders gathering this summer in Zazi to organize a Tribal Police Force

SP: Chief Zazai, we were talking about warlords last time. We hear the word “corruption” a lot in news reports in the States, referring to the Kabul government–and how that alienates the people from the U.S. effort. Can you tell us what specific forms corruption takes? Give us a picture from the regular person’s point of view.

Chief Zazai: You are a trucker who is delivering a load of goods from Kabul to Herat. What happens? Along the road there are checkpoints, some of “police,” some you don’t know who they are. Each time you must pay. You are held up at gunpoint. Or you may own a shop and you’re doing well. One day they arrest you and take you to jail. Or you or your son is snatched off the street. Your family must pay a ransom to get you back. Do you want a license to build a building or permission to dig a well or put in a pipe for sewage? Everywhere you find outstretched hands.

SP: Who is doing this?

Chief Zazai: It is the police, it is the army, it is agents of the warlords who run their districts and deliver votes to the Kabul government. And when the people believe that the U.S. is backing these people, you can see what that does.

SP: Not to mention what the people endure from the Taliban.

Chief Zazai: The people are caught between two fires. When the warlords ran Afghanistan after the Soviets got kicked out, a poor person had to pay a “tax” to have a bicycle, to buy rice, if you sneezed they took money out of your pocket. The Taliban arose in response to this and were backed by the people who thought, These guys are bad but at least they are honest. At least they believe in something beyond their own greed and gangsterism. But then the Taliban became just as much of a plague upon the people by jamming their cruel ways down everybody’s throat. And we saw what Mullah Omar let happen, culminating on 9/11.

SP: Your idea of Tribal Police Forces and a Tribal Alliance aims to counter both warlordism and Talibanism. Is that right?

Chief Zazai: Instead of an official government that is “warlord-centric” or a Shadow government that is “Taliban-centric” (which is what my country is suffering under now), what will work is a form of governance that is tribal-centric. The tribal system is the natural form of governance in Afghanistan and has been for thousands of years. And the U.S. will not achieve anything until it understands this.

The Afghan tribes wish for this cooperation and partnership with the U.S. Forces. Afghan villagers do not like to see U.S. forces going into a village and searching the houses of ordinary people who have nothing to do with the Taliban, and they are sick and tired of the Taliban who are forcing these villagers and tribesmen for their needs which are water, food, money and safe houses. When cooperation gets going, the Afghan tribes will have an understanding with the U.S. forces. I believe this will bring not just a positive impact but a deep rooted relationship between the two nations (the United States of America & Afghanistan).

SP: We had a comment last week from “Gene,” wondering what the greater vision was for your Tribal Police Force program. Clearly in your mind such a program is just a first step. How do you see it expanding?

Chief Zazai: The vision is to expand the TPF programme from one tribe to many tribes and from one district to the whole country. But as I said earlier, we have got to do it right which means starting it in one district and proving it can work, then expanding it to other districts by signing treaties with the tribes and allowing the tribes to sign treaties among each other so they can prevent future disputes among themselves. Such a programme can grow from a province to a province. It is absolutely still possible to do it and I believe the U.S. policy makers and top generals should get down to business and take this approach seriously now.

SP: The process, as you see it, would be a cooperative effort between the tribes and the U.S. government?

The 11 Tribes' meeting was broadcast on Afghan channel Shamashad for three days

The 11 Tribes' meeting was broadcast on Afghan channel Shamashad for three days

Chief Zazai: Yes. It must start bottom-up, from the grass roots, as I have done in my valley by organizing a Tribal Police Force of 80 men. We had 2000 people volunteer for this! So it can grow and it should. And, as I said, when our tribal meeting was broadcast on the Afghan TV channel, Shamashad (which it was for three days), we got many, many responses from tribal leaders all over Afghanistan wishing to join.

SP: Skeptics of course will say that to arm the Afghan tribes would only be adding another ungovernable element to an already-seething witches’ brew of contending forces. How would you answer that objection?

Chief Zazai: I absolutely can understand the point where many minds’ red light alerts goes off, but that again is due to the lack of understanding of the Afghan tribal structure. Back in the 18th and 19th Centuries the British Raj faced similar problems and the threats were immediately felt by London. In order to stop the Afghan tribes from crossing into the greater Indian side and destabilizing the British Raj, the British created tribal forces from the Afghan tribes to defend the territory of the British Raj in what is now the (NWFP) North West Frontier Province. That strategy worked so well that the British models of Khyber Rifles, Mommand Regiments and Frontier Constabulary have become legendary forces and all are made from the tribesmen and are still part of the today’s Pakistani armed forces.

SP: As I understand it, these British-officered forces were, in practical terms at the rank-and-file level, governed by tribal constraints and conventions.

Chief Zazai: Militia do not exist in the frame of the tribal structure, we have got Arbakai, which means Tribal Police or Tribal Armed Constables. As I said before, the Tribal Police Force programme is and will be under the total control of a Tribal Council. The elders will control the force, there shall be no problems at all because we have a strong tribal system that no individual can break the treaties these elders make. What the elders promise, they will do and deliver. It will be more depending on the U.S. Army to deliver what they promise. To prevent tribal conflict, it has to be structured in such a way that all the tribes living in one province will sign Unity treaties among each other and agree on the conditions laid out. This would be expanded to the neighboring provinces as well, that’s where we will be able to unite the Afghan Tribes and bring them all under a single leadership. I have done so in my valley with the 11 Tribes. It’s a small-scale achievement but it could be applied all over and enlarged.

SP: What did you think of Gen. McChrystal’s recent report to President Obama? Do his recommendations fit in with the program that you have started and are championing?

Chief Zazai: I have my agreements with Gen. McChrystal’s report and my disagreements. Let me talk first about my agreements. It is interesting to learn that Gen. McChrystal has identified all the wounds, i.e. the corrupt Kabul regime, lack of cooperation between NATO countries, lack of knowing the main goal of being there and so forth. What I disagree with is the tune of his views presented in the media. I mean using negative words like “failure.” This is red meat to the enemy’s propaganda machine and believe me they are good. I hear this often that the Taliban leaders are encouraging their field commanders to fight harder as the elephant is now grounded and all we have to do is to slaughter the elephant, meaning America is now on its knees and a few more hard pushes and they are out. This contributes a great deal to the morale of our enemies. I understand that words like this must be used for internal U.S. political reasons, to wake the people up and show them how difficult the task is. But I would suggest the U.S. top military generals be cautious issuing such statements as this has its severe impacts and impressions.

SP: What are your thoughts on the U.S. sending more troops?

Chief Zazai: To send more troops means to create more new battles, I think we have already got a few nasty fronts in the south where the British soldiers and U.S. Marines are fighting almost non-stop and of course more troops means more body bags and that itself would be an alarming sign. In Vietnam the U.S. had over half a million soldiers and still the generals were asking for more. I would suggest that Gen. McChrystal instead explore better alternatives on the ground rather than asking for more troops. I agree when he is asking for resources and equipment and here I present the Tribal Police Force for his attention–to consider the TPF as an alternative to more U.S. troops.

I am not saying that the TPF members will take the place of the U.S. Army or Marines but the TPF will prove to be more efficient and more productive because these are the “soil men,” they know how to fight, they know the tough terrain and they can easily identify friends and foes, which the U.S. forces cannot do on their own. By getting the backing and the support of the tribes, we will bring the insurgency down to 50%, cut all the routes of crossing from Pakistan, turn the local tribes against the insurgents to fight them, deny them shelter and food. This is the way to do it and the proper and the productive way. As we saw the large-scale fraud in this Presidential election, this is no way of bringing democracy or even convincing the Afghan nation to accept a President who is not more than a Mayor of Kabul and who only relies on powerful, brutal warlords just to survive.

SP: Thanks again, Chief Zazai, for giving us a view from the tribal perspective. We’ll continue next week. I want to ask you more about the psychology of tribes and how the tribal point of view is different from our Western way of thinking–and how this affects the U.S. military’s efforts to connect in a meaningful way with the tribes. Okay with you?

Chief Zazai: I will keep talking, Steve, as long as you want to keep asking questions!

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

8 Responses to “Warlords and Taliban”

  1. October 16, 2009 at 4:17 am

    It comes as no surprise that “corruption” is one of the main situations that must be dealt with swiftly and affirmatively. Chief Zazai’s summary of the evolution of ‘government’ in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban invites one to reflect on the Vietnam experience. Chief Zazai states that initially, the people of Afghanistan (which I interpret to mean ‘the tribes’) supported the Taliban only to find out that the Taliban were no different than the warlords who followed the Soviet withdrawal (were warlords a part of the picture prior to Soviet occupation?). This week’s post brings these thoughts to my mind:

    What is to prevent corruption in the Tribal Police Force? On a grandeur scale, how does one successfully prevent corruption in any governing body? How does Cheif Zazai propose to eliminate corruption in a way that is any different from what other leaders may have tried but failed.

    I may be wrong, but as I see it, a Taliban is a member of a tribe. If that is true, is there room on the Tribal Police Force for a Taliban? If not, how does one prevent a Taliban from enlisting in a Tribal Police Force?

  2. October 16, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Ummm…I’m not sure that Chief Zazai says that at all about the Taliban…what he is saying is that the Taliban went wrong in forcing their values on to the ‘people’ – good point BTW on the people versus the tribes: I think Afghanistan has always been the tribes and only the people when it unifies to deal to an invader – and in supporting other seemingly fundamentalist organisations brought the fury of the post-911 OEF upon themselves . What the Taliban are doing at the moment is straight out of the insurgency handbook in challenging the legitimacy of the official government by establishing a shadow government, security forces, bureaucracy etc and in a number of areas they are probably getting away with it. If they are onto it, the Taliban will start their own PRTs and start to really give us a run for our money…

    Cheif Zazai’s point about the negativism of many of GEN McCrystal’s statements is spot on and while he may be trying to shape the domestic audience he is also providing ammo for the Taliban’s own IO machine…

    I would ask you if we are doing anything different to the Taliban in Afghanistan where we are trying to enforce Western values on a non-Western culture. What we so righteously look down on as corruption is, in many parts of the world, just a means of doing business – look at the BAe scandal in the UK a few weeks ago – what do you do: grease a few wheels or say bye-bye to billions worth of contract with a commensurate hit on UK jobs and economy, knowing full well that some other company, less scrupulous, will just wing in and take the order any way…

    In terms of allowing a Taliban to join a TPF – why not create a Taliban TPF – it may be the lesser of the evils and a method of bringing the Taliban to the table – could we live with a Taliban Afghanistan if it was AG-free?

  3. October 16, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Even better, AQ-free – does anyone else only notice typos as they hit the ‘post’ button…?

  4. TS Alfabet
    October 17, 2009 at 7:31 am

    Questions for Chief Zazai:

    1. Does the Chief have any hesitations or misgivings about relying on the U.S. in light of the experience of Poland, the Czechs and Honduras with this Administration? Notwithstanding the many fine members of the U.S. Armed Forces, can the Chief trust this Administration to keep its word?

    2. What is his assessment of the Taliban? Are they absolutists? I.e., are they are irreconcilable with any, other form of government in Afghanistan and will not stop fighting until they are in complete control again? Is there any chance that the Taliban would be content to share power or exist under the authority of the traditional, tribal system?

    3. What is his view (and the view of the tribes in general) of the Taliban? How popular are they? Have any members of the 11 Tribes of the Valley joined the Taliban? If so, do these people leave their homes and livelihoods to live and train with the Taliban armies or do they simply adopt the Taliban convictions and stay, cancer-like, among their neighbors? Is being Taliban more a way of life or is it a movement that one joins and becomes pulled deeper into?

    4. Was General McChrystal wrong that the U.S., using its current….”non-strategy”, is failing or was he only wrong to publicly say so? Does the Chief feel like the U.S. can succeed in defeating the Taliban using its current approach (i.e., without the tribes) ?

    5. How large of a force of Marines or U.S. Soldiers does the Chief believe is needed, for example in the Zazi Valley, for his TPF to fully defeat the enemy (Taliban/Warlords/Criminal Gangs) and bring lasting peace? Could his TPF prevail with only a small force (as contemplated by Major Gant’s SF team model) with access to air power/artillery? What type of force would be best suited to partner with his TPF? In the recent Nuristan attack, for example, it appears that the Taliban/AQ massed as many as 300 fighters to attack the U.S. COP. It is certain that the Taliban would try to overwhelm the TPF in similar fashion. What would he need to withstand this? (And then, depending on the Chief’s answer, is it realistic for the U.S. to bring those assets to bear all over Afghanistan, for every TPF? How would that work?)

    TO GENE: Good question about preventing corruption. Only real way to do so in a free society is this– KEEP IT LOCAL. If the U.S. took Chief Zazai’s approach and worked from the tribal level up, instead of from the top down, corruption would largely disappear, at least in its most pernicious forms. If the U.S. by-passed the national government in Kabul and, instead, directed the lion share of its economic aid to the U.S. commanders in each province (or even to the battallion commanders), that would solve much of the problem. These commanders would have very broad discretion (as Major Gant suggests) to spend that money in their AO as seems best based on the needs of their locality. This gives these commanders important influence with the tribes and builds confidence with the tribes that siding with the U.S. brings tangible benefits. This was done to great effect by the Marines in Iraq.

    If you look at the work that Tim Lynch is doing in Afghanistan ( ), amazing things can happen when government bureaucracy gets out of the way. Corruption thrives based upon the number of people involved in any process. If, for example, a sewage system has to be built in a village at a cost of $1 Million, the potential for corruption (and cost overruns) depends directly upon how many people are involved in that project. If the contractor has to get permission from a national entity, then a provincial entity and then a local entity, that is three levels with hands out demanding payment. If the ANA or ANP is brought in for security, they will demand part of the money. If, on the other hand, we by-pass all of the bureacracy and allow the local U.S. commander to partner with the tribal Chief to get the sewage system built, it is a huge win-win all around: opportunity for corruption is almost nil because there are no layers of bureaucracy to go through and the village gets to employ many people in building the project and providing security. Again, I refer everyone to Tim Lynch’s site for example after example of how he has been doing this very thing in partnership with the local tribes, and doing so without ANY security from U.S./ISAF forces. He relies, instead on the tribes and his own, small team of experts.

    When you think of it, there are very few things that cannot be done at the local level. Americans have this strange prejudice that there must be a large organization in place to get anything done.

    TO SJPONEILL: re creation of “Taliban TPF’s”. I am very interested in Chief Zazai’s take on this. My impression from everything I have read about the Taliban during their reign of terror in the 90’s and what they are saying now (and who they align themselves with as well) is that their leadership is fundamentally irreconcilable. There may be some portion who are essentially “Rent-A-Taliban”… in it for the money and not true believers, but the insurgency is driven by a fanatical leadership. In other words, forming a “Taliban TPF” would be like forming a Fox TPF to guard a hen-house. It is part and parcel of the Taliban philosophy that their strict view of Islam and ONLY their strict view should govern. There is no ground for compromise with any, other form of governance, whether it is tribal, or democratic or monarchical, etc… It is impossible to suppose that a Taliban TPF would actually fight against other insurgent Taliban or AQ.

    • October 17, 2009 at 11:41 am

      TS, Great commentary and interesting take on the corruption issue. I think you share the same interest as many of us regarding how the Taliban fits into all of this. Again, the Chief says the Taliban once had the support of the people despite how bad they were because they were “honest.” Things change. SJP voiced a good question that needs to be considered based on what little I for one know: is there room for a Taliban TPF. Why or why not? I truly hope our decision-makers are taking note of Mr. Pressfield’s blog. As I see it, no one has has all the answers yet to resolving this extremely complex situation, but the folks who are willing to step up and voice their thoughts on this blog are worth listening to whether or not we agree with each other on all the details.

  5. October 19, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    TS Alfabet, re the Taliban and whether they are irreconcilable or not, it probably depends upon what you want to reconcile them with: is the objective in Afghanistan to prevent Al-Qaeda re-establishing itself their as a base of operations, or it is to inflict democracy on what is essentially a tribal nation?

    If the former, then an accommodation with the Taliban may be a means to that end; accommodations with strange perhaps unpalatable bedfellows are a fact of life in the global realpolitik. Could we live with the Taliban in Afghanistan if that meant no more (or significantly less probability of) 911, the Madrid train bombing, London tube bombings or the Bali bombing…? If we aspire to the the latter objective, then we have a problem because we are imposing what are fundamentally alien concepts on a nation that has essentially been in a state of anarchy since Christmas 1979.

    Whatever the solution, I believe that the real problem is the lack of a common question in Afghanistan: what do we want to achieve there? The answer needs to be somewhat more precise than ‘world peace’.

  6. November 5, 2009 at 8:49 am

    The assumption behind Chief Zazai’s approach is that none of the tribes like having the Taliban warlords on their soil. I am curious to know if this assumption is, indeed, correct. Because the Taliban must be recruiting supporters from among the local tribes as well, no? If so, then how would Gen. Gant and Chief Zazai plan to work with the tribes that have been known to support the Taliban fighters?