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!
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?
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!