AN INTERVIEW WITH AN AFGHAN TRIBAL CHIEF

Interview with An Afghan Tribal Chief

It Was Easier Fighting the Taliban

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 6, 2009

SP: You’ve been in Kabul the last couple of weeks, Chief Zazai. What were you doing there?

Chief Zazai: I was meeting with British and American commanders, trying to get support for the Tribal Police Force program in my home valley.

SP: Do I dare ask how that went?

Chief Zazai with LtGen Sir Graeme Lamb at ISAF Headquarters, Kabul

Chief Zazai with LtGen Sir Graeme Lamb at ISAF Headquarters, Kabul

Chief Zazai: Steve, without exception the generals at the top are receptive; they are honorable, intelligent and well-meaning men who are great soldiers and who, I believe, in addition to accomplishing their mission, want the best for the Afghan people.

SP: But …

Chief Zazai: We are up against a level of corruption that the Coalition commanders still can’t or won’t understand. You cannot imagine the pressure I, Amir Mohammad [commander of the fledgling 80-man Tribal Police in Chief Zazai’s home district] and our Chiefs are under. The TPF guys worked for five months and only received one month’s salary. The Tribal Police are totally under-resourced, no weapons [other than their own] or proper clothing. Can you imagine how we are surviving?

SP: Who exactly is the enemy? I don’t mean the “far enemy,” I mean the “near enemy.”

Chief Zazai: The Afghan people ask over and over, “Why don’t the Americans do something?” The answer is the Americans’ hands are tied by the need to support a corrupt and hopelessly compromised regime. Here is what I mean: in my district, a new border Police Chief has been appointed. This man has been on the payroll of the ISI Pakistani military for 30 years. Two weeks ago the Zazi Chiefs protested against this appointment. About 20 elders went to Kabul to meet with the Interior Minister. He refused to even see them!

SP: What does such an appointment mean in day-to-day terms? How does it affect your Tribal Police Force?

Chief Zazai: These officials go to meet with the Americans and poison their minds against the TPF. I spoke to the [American commander in the Zazi Valley] for two hours over the phone and explained to him why the Tribal Police Force was formed and what is the agenda behind this program, and still he was telling me to talk to the Governor, the District Administrator and the border Police Chief. I said I will not speak to these corrupt men who are doing everything in their power to dissolve the TPF and turn everyone against it.

SP: In other words, it’s not the literal enemy that’s the biggest problem; it’s inaction and incomprehension from supposed “friends.”

Chief Zazai: The enemy at least fights you in the open. [His allies] within Zazi valley society are on the payroll of the ISI and are serving the interests of the Pakistani free wing of the ISI, whose only wish is to destabilize Afghanistan and turn it into a war zone again.

SP: Do you know their names?

Chief Zazai: I know their names and they know mine. That is why I must travel with bodyguards everywhere I go in Afghanistan.

"That is why I must travel with bodyguards everywhere in Afghanistan."

"That is why I must travel with bodyguards everywhere in Afghanistan."

SP: The American public thinks the situation in Afghanistan is us, the good guys, versus the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the bad guys. That’s the big debate now in the Obama administration–more troops or not? But it’s not that simple, is it?

Chief Zazai: There are 35 members of the Haqqani network [insurgents based in Pakistan] in my valley. Who is supporting these groups? Our Tribal Police Force was just formed 5 months ago and already two IED attacks have taken place against it. Who arranged these and why? There has not been a single incident against these so-called government commanders and MP in the last five years. Why not?

The Governor is an HIG [Hezb-e Islami Group, the party loyal to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar] ex-commander and warlord, a corrupt man who takes 20% of every construction work in Paktia province. The district administrator is so corrupt that on many occasions the Tribal Chiefs have insulted him in front of all the Zazi people. But he does not care. Corruption is in every cell of his body and all he sees is money.

SP: Do the Americans understand this?

Chief Zazai: I tell you, Steve, I don’t know. I designed this Tribal Police Force program to bring the grass-roots communities closer to the U.S. Army in order to work towards a close partnership, and here the U.S. Army Commander tells me to talk to the Governor and the district administrator, when I and everyone else know only too well of their corruption.

SP: Chief Zazai, I know you’re aware of Maj. Jim Gant’s paper, “One Tribe At A Time.”¬†What do you think of his proposed strategy of “tribal engagement.”

Chief Zazai: This is what I have been pleading for! With our 11 tribes in Zazi, we are ready and willing and actively seeking support! I am beating my head against the wall trying to get help for just this sort of partnership between the Tribes and U.S. forces.

SP: Are you discouraged?

Chief Zazai: My father and I fought against the Russians and then the Taliban. My father was murdered by these evil men. I will never stop fighting for my people. These [Afghan official] thugs and criminals have tried everything to dissolve the Tribal Police Force program. They brought pressure from the Governor’s office and the Interior ministry, but the program continues to date. Why? Because this is not a private militia or imposed gang, this is by the people of Zazi for the people of Zazi.

The formation of the TPF and uniting the 11 Tribes of Zazi was meant to bring peace and stability to the region with a view to expanding the program throughout greater Paktia province and then to other provinces where the tribal structure still exists. But it is hard to survive, having so many bad elements within the province who are opposing the Tribal Police Force just because this program will stop them from the wrongdoings they do and pave a way for a partnership of Tribes and U.S. forces. The people who are opposing the TPF are serving the interests of the ISI with a view to bring apart the Tribes and U.S. and Coalition forces.

SP: Do you ever get nostalgic for the “good old days” fighting the Russians in the hills?

Chief Zazai: At least then you had your friends at your side and you saw your enemy in front of your face.

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

4 Responses to “It Was Easier Fighting the Taliban”

  1. Anonymous
    November 6, 2009 at 5:08 am

    This is very disturbing. With every post, my perception of the situation in Afghanistan becomes less clear and more complex. I am not afraid to display my ignorance on this, and I believe my ignorance reflects the ignorance of ‘the common man.’ Weeks ago, I asked what the endgame was, and that is still not clear. After reading this post, I can’t even tell who the players are, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The very title of this post suggests there are forces at work, players in this conflict that are more insidious and dangerous than the Taliban. I’d like to see a bulleted ‘white paper’ that summarizes the conflict, but after months of following this blog, I do not think that is possible. Does anyone really know what the situation is? Who’s fighting who” For what? What are the stakes?

  2. Chief Zazai
    November 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Dear Anonymous, Afghanistan is not an easy place to be with all the might and the military power. Afghanistan is the heart of the great game, it was always so & it will always be, but what is really important is understanding the rich culture, the people & their views and of course their needs. To treat Afghans like other neighbouring Nations would be a mistake, throughout the history Imperial and super powers unfortuntly committed the same mistakes, means they treated the Afghans like Central Asian Nations and some as Indians!
    Things apperas complex beceasue we do not bother to look things from inside, we only see things from out side and usually in Afghanistan every story has two sides, the out side one and then the inside one! I know it’s a bit tricky, but thats how it works.
    For example: In a province, we see a governor, we also see sub governors & Police chiefs all appears as legitimate as one could imagine, but what we do not see is the inside, how they have got the jobs at first place and for what? So, if we need to continue playing the great game, we at least need to have a knowledge of it!
    The main things the west could do for the better future of Afghanistan is just a few and by doing this foundationary work the west will always be remembered as a friend and an ally of every Afghan.

    1) Bring about a totaly uncorupted government which will be brought into power with a will of the Afghan people. The Afghans support a strong man not a brutal and a corrupt man, the histroy of Afghanistan is a witness to this.

    2) The immediate arrest of those War lords whose hands are still covered with the blood of innocent Afghans and they are part of Mr Karzai’s government, some should be sent to Hauge immediately to face open Media trials and the small ones should face justice at home.

    3) Bring tribes on board to contribute towards security by providing security to their villages, towns, districts and provinces and by denying shelter, food and safe passages to insurgents.

    4) An immediate attention on the unemployment issue and providing job oppertunities for many young unemployed Afghans in their home provinces.

    I believe by taking just a few immediate and serious steps, we can kool off the heat a bit and give a chance for US & NATO to breath at least too & rather focus on Nation building Programme.

    Afghanistan is winable, the majority of the Afghans wants a long term Partnership with The United States of America, its just a handful people who are backed by the regional powers to carry these evil acts against the Afghan Nation & Coalition and ISAF forces, this is part of the Great Game and to Win this Game, we have to be much smarter than the Regional guys!

    Chief Zazai

    • November 9, 2009 at 3:34 pm

      Chief Zazai,

      I appreciate your response to the quandry I find myself in. I am a Vietnam veteran, and the more I learn about your situation, the more fearful I become. In my personal opinion, the United States supported Diem’s and Thieu’s regimes in the ’50’s and ’60’s, and I consider both of those governments to have been full of corruption. Have we learned nothing from our failures? Are we doomed to make similar mistakes in Afghanistan?

      Your suggestion to bring about a totally uncorrupt government is noble indeed, but to do it is a far more difficult. Corruption thrives in environments in which more and more people become involved. The more people, the more extended palms. I believe we need to reduce Afghan dependency and hence the number of extended palms.

      Do we know who these warlords are who need to be arrested? If we do, why hasn’t this already been done? Who are “WE?” Are we the Afghans? Americans? Both?

      I believe your third point — bringing the tribes on board — has garnered the most attention and can claim the most positive results, but like many situations, all four areas need to be successfully addressed. Success in one area does not equate to success in the others, hence the complexity of the situation.

      Your fourth point strikes very close to home. Even in the United States, we struggle with devastating unemployment. How can we solve the unemployment situation in Afghanistan if we can’t even solve it within our own borders?

      I sincerely appreciate your response, but I remain perplexed and very concerned with the state of affairs in your country. I do believe in the power of prayer and in divine guidance, and I do believe it will come for the benefit of Afghanistan, her neighbors and the United States.

      Gene

  3. Randy
    November 6, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I posted a comment or two about “tribalism” and the obstacles to a centralized government somewhere on this blog. Frankly, how does one “select” one tribe over another to receive infrastructure support or other “hearts and minds” incentives? Keeping in mind, the Pashtun tribe represents over 40% of Afghanistan-basically, the eastern portions of Afghanistan more connected to Pakistan by virtue of “tribalism” than Afghanistan as a whole..and this is with a purpose.

    Some of you recall the Battle of Wanat on 13 July 2008 whereas nine Sky Soldiers from the 173rd were killed in a large ground assault by anti-coalition forces to include foreign fighters.

    The son of a retired COL was killed…the father was a close friend of the BDE commander, Chip Presyler who some on you may recall was on the ground in Operation Anaconda 3/2002..not too far from Zormatt (make a right turn to the Shaihkot Valley)..and just down the road from Gardez. COL (R) Brostrom wrote to his senator asking for a full investigation of the action at Wanat-the letter was posted in the Washington Post article reference to the battle a weel or so ago-I copies this portion as the proof source that Afghanistan was essentially abandoned in lieu of the invasion of Iraq.
    _____________

    “The Vice Chief of Staff of the Army General Dick Cody shortly after the battle of Wanat
    stated that Afghanistan was deliberately being fought a Holding Action or
    Economy of Force Mission for many years to ensure that Iraq received the
    required assets and forces. Gen Cody said that the Army would not support a
    quick deployment of additional assets to Afghanistan so as not to upset the
    DWELL TIME of Army Brigades returning from Iraq even though the
    increasing threat mandated immediate action.”

    From David P. Brostrom letter to Senator Daniel Inouye, September 22, 2008
    __________________________________________________________

    So, for some 7 years or so, we have been in a holding action..all the while allowing the bad guys to refit and come at us again.

    Now into the 8th year..almost twice the time we fought in Europe and the Pacific in World War II, most in the coalition are beginning to really doubt the ability of the Karzai government to make the changes necessary.

    Are we going to be in Afghanistan for another 8 years? And, here’s the answer:

    The German government has sponsored about 20 Afghans to obtain their public administration degrees at the University of Erfurt..north east of Frankfurt. I spoke there last June and had an opportunity to speak with most….and most, if not all are doing everything they can to stay in Germany. Why, because they are Afghan nationals have lost faith in the ability of the international community, their “government” and their tribes to bring some sustained peace to the country. In short, they do not wish to go home after completing their degrees.

    This includes the advisor to the provincial governor in Gardez.